As Egypt’s regime totters on the verge of collapse, President Obama is looking less like Ronald Reagan and more like the Gipper’s predecessor, Jimmy Carter. The turmoil in Egypt is markedly similar to the revolution that gripped Iran 33 years ago. Egypt may be to Mr. Obama what Iran was to Mr. Carter.
President Carter’s emphasis on human rights in foreign policy set the stage for the 1979 revolt in Iran. Like Mr. Obama, Mr. Carter adopted a tone of moral superiority to the policies that had preceded him. When small-scale demonstrations began to break out in Iran in the fall of 1977, the State Department simply chastised the Shah’s government, which had been a firm U.S. ally, to get ahead of reform or get out of the way. This emboldened the oppositionists, a mix of liberal reformers and radical followers of the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini, who kept up the pressure.
A year later, the situation had deteriorated to the point where the Shah’s regime was hanging by a thread. Crowds were in the streets, the security forces were crumbling, and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s influence was growing. Mr. Carter abandoned human-rights posturing and informed the Shah that he should do what he needed to keep order. By then, it was too late. The Shah fled in January 1979, Khomeini returned in February, and in March a referendum eliminated the monarchy and established an Islamic Republic. Khomeini ruthlessly purged the disorganized liberal oppositionists and consolidated his brutal dictatorship, the excesses of which were far worse than anything perpetrated by the Shah.
Egypt, like Iran of the 1970s, is a critical U.S. ally. It has the largest military in the region, a strategic position on the Suez Canal and a border with Israel. Several classified State Department background memos recently released by Wikileaks show that the Obama administration has vigorously pushed Cairo to implement democratic reforms. Hosni Mubarak’s government pushed back, arguing reform had to be slow to be effective. Other Wikileaks documents expose concerns about the influence of the radical Muslim Brotherhood and Tehran’s attempts to dominate the region and meddle in Egyptian internal affairs. In one particularly revealing cable from July 2009, Egyptian intelligence chief and newly appointed Vice President Omar Soliman told then-Central Command commander Gen. David Petraeus, “’we hope Iran will stop supporting Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and other cells’ within Egypt … ‘but if not we are ready.’”
The Obama team clearly was not ready for the events of the last few weeks and has abrogated any leadership role in resolving the turmoil in Egypt. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton summed up the feckless administration stance when she said Sunday, “We’re not advocating a specific outcome.” This is a lose-lose position for Mr. Obama. If the opposition takes over, it is no thanks to him, and America will have no legitimacy dealing with the new government. If Mubarak stays in power, his regime might rethink its ties to a faithless ally in Washington. Apparently incapable of shaping events, the White House is making a virtue of necessity. When the time calls for action, Mr. Obama sits on his hands.
Islamic extremists are giddy over the possibility of the region’s largest pro-American domino falling. Liberal oppositionists are calling for a united front government with the Muslim Brotherhood, a compromise measure that will surely prove fatal when the current regime collapses and the moderates are left to face off with the extremists. Given the precedent set in Iran – as well as in the Russian and French Revolutions – the liberals will not last long. At that point, Mr. Obama will be even less capable of dictating a “specific outcome,” even if he cared to try. The future could witness al Qaeda No. 2 and former Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood stalwart Ayman al Zawahiri making a triumphant return to Cairo.
The administration should immediately draw down the number of personnel in the U.S. embassy in Cairo. A hostage crisis may be the only part of this Carteresque rerun Mr. Obama can avoid.