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Note to White House: Stop Blaming the State Deptartment on Egypt

February 13, 2011

As I mentioned in my news round-up earlier, the NY Times did a hit-piece story about an alleged rift between the White House and the State Dept. about how to handle the unfolding situation in Egypt. It seems pretty obvious that this was a leak from the White House to defer the criticism of the mixed messaging and place most of the blame on the State Dept. I’ve re-read the article about 5 times now and it’s extremely one-sided and relies only on unnamed “officials,” presumably from the White House.

Perhaps the NYT should have spoken to someone at the State Department to get a better idea of whether there was in fact a big rift? Because absent that, this article isn’t really journalism, it’s just a planted leak. And if the NYT did reach out to the State Dept. but were rebuffed, then tell us that. I have a feeling however that they did not reach out because they probably knew that their article would generate many more headlines by claiming a rift and if the State Dept. weighed it, they might have been forced to change the theme a bit. Again, Not. Journalism.

While at times it seemed that the administration was waffling and waiting to see which way to jump, the fact is that it’s easy to oversimplify what they should have done and how they should have done it. For decades U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, irrespective of which political party controlled the White House or Congress, has revolved around the shaky and hypocritical notion that dictators bring stability, a notion that has been proven false in the last three weeks. It just so happens that this particular administration was the one caught having to rationalize and reconcile thirty plus years of U.S. policy with our espoused ideals of democracy and freedom.

I myself was critical of the administration at times, believing that the writing was on the wall and that in order to promote our oft-professed values of freedom and democracy, we had to stand very firmly behind the pro-democracy protesters. Congress wasn’t all that helpful either. As they championed democracy they made clear it should be conditional and based upon the idea that the U.S. should try to bar certain people/organizations from taking part in the election process. That was the wrong message to be sending to the millions of people demanding freedom in Tahrir Square. So, it’s easy to sit on the sidelines and be an arm-chair general.

I have no idea if there really was a rift between the WH and State Dept. or whether at times there was just confused messaging. Lets keep in mind that Joe Biden started the ball rolling by being the first person out of the gate to speak publicly about the unfolding events and he made the bizarre and damaging statement that Mubarak wasn’t a dictator and that he should not step down. That’s a hard statement to walk back from and it was left largely up to Secretary Clinton to clean up that mess. In addition, even the press began to notice that President Obama was hiding from them, ostensibly to avoid being asked about the revolution taking place and the US response to it. In fact, the press took the unusual step of having the White House Correspondents’ Association write a formal letter of complaint to Robert Gibbs saying that the administration was not allowing them the opportunity to ask questions about Egypt. Secretary Clinton didn’t have that luxury (of hiding). In fact, the administration’s strongest pro-protester, pro-democracy statements came from the Secretary of State on last weekend’s Sunday talk shows. The fact that former Ambassador to Egypt, Frank Wisner, went off message in Munich is hardly Secretary Clinton’s fault.

Also, this gem was nestled in the NY Times article:

Despite the fervor on the streets of Cairo, and Mr. Obama’s occasional tough language, the president always took a pragmatic view of how to use America’s limited influence over change in Egypt. He was not in disagreement with the positions of Mr. Wisner and Mrs. Clinton about how long transition would take. But he apparently feared that saying so openly would reveal that the United States was not in total sync with the protesters, and was indeed putting its strategic interests first…

Ok, so if Obama was in agreement with Wisner and Clinton, where exactly is the rift?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. KingTut permalink
    February 13, 2011 3:38 pm

    Here here! It’s about time someone called out the administration for hiding and trying to shift blame to the State Dept. There were times I wanted to see the administration use stronger language but you are right, the strongest language by far came from Hillary on all those talk shows. Obama usually came out after all the groundwork and hard work had been done by her.

  2. HillaryFan permalink
    February 13, 2011 4:08 pm

    THANK YOU! I appreciate your writing this because you fleshed out the issue much better than the NYT did. Your points that there WAS a messaging problem, Obama agreed with Hillary and most importantly that he was overly careful and came out to speak about Egypt only after the hard work was done by Hillary, are all well taken. And you are so right that the NYT should have at least spoken to someone at the State Dept. because it doesn’t sound like they did.

    Obama is just trying to make himself look good at the expense of the State Dept.

  3. Carolyn-Rodham permalink
    February 13, 2011 4:33 pm

    I’m so glad you picked up on this again, stacy! The Times article was reminiscent in many ways of its coverage of the 2008 primaries –Obama could do no wrong, and Hillary was painted with a black blush. I found it interesting, incidentally, that today’s article found it relevant to remind us that it was Samantha Powers — portrayed in the article as one of the prescient next-generation White House insiders and former campaign aides pressing Obama to side with the protesters — who had to leave the 2008 campaign for describing Hillary as a monster. Uh, and the relevance of that is…? I also found it irritating that throughout the entire article — which referred to other players by their titles, e.g. Vice President Biden, Senator John Kerry, Defense Secretary Robert Gates — Hillary is referred to as “Mrs Clinton.”
    Gee, I wonder who the White House source was *cough* samanthapowers *cough* ?

    • pcfs permalink
      February 14, 2011 8:15 am

      I so agree with your statement Carolyn. That said, CNN broke with this story on Saturday 6:00 PM edition with Wolf Blitzer. Hillary worked so hard all week and we all should praise the State Dept. for all their hard work.

  4. Terry permalink
    February 13, 2011 4:44 pm

    Thanks for articulating something that has been gnawing at me for over a week. We heard nothing from the WH until the tide turned for the revolutionaries. Aside from the contradictory statements of VP Biden who first says Mubarak was not a dictator and who is now commenting that the revolution is going to spread throughout the region. It now falls into Hillary’s hands and the State Department to mend all the broken fences, remake and realign all the treaties and get things functioning again, a herculean job, for which she will get very little credit. My hope is that the status quo in the region has been so compromised everyone will drop their entrenched positions and take a fresh look at the Israel/Palestine problem. I find nothing inconsistent in Hillary’s human rights position which has always been shaped by what the world currently is and not what the world might be. Call her an incrementalist if you must but admire her tenacity. She is pragmatic and her work has always been to keep things working in the best interest of America. That is her job and I think that is what most Americans expect from her. If there is more democratic revolution in the region, let’s see how many Americans can tolerate and be satisfied with the different forms of democracy that will evolve.

    • February 13, 2011 5:50 pm

      I agree. And while US administrations have installed and backed dictators globally dating back at least to the Cold War (not only in the Middle East), Obama by delivering the speech in Cairo after inauguration told the world he would be different and directly encouraged democracy. He did not back up with his words with any helpful, substantive action in the Middle East and instead cut funding to pro-democracy movements in Egypt and Jordan, as reported by Stacy. And Biden’s statements on PBS Newshour during the revolutionary protests made the WH appear extremely hypocritical, far more than anything the SOS said…

  5. Pilgrim permalink
    February 13, 2011 6:30 pm

    I feel Stacy’s work here to be a really excellent analysis of the goings-on betwixt WH, SoS, and NYT reportage.

    I also find all of the above comments very insightful.

    Something that causes me real irritation are those (like Taylor Marsh, for one example) who repeatedly hark back to one word (“stability”) used by Hillary Clinton early in the protest, continually implying that she was caught flat-footed on the issue, gliding over the real source of power and policy, i.e., the White House and Mr. Obama.

    We know that Mr. O likes to hide and only come out when the coast is clear and he knows what direction will be well to take, and, of course, accept all the credit.

    • tiffy permalink
      February 13, 2011 10:12 pm

      I don’t understand why some journalists are so obsessed with the word “stable” either. Hillary said that on Jan 25, day 1 of the protest. She said something like “our assessment is that the government of Egypt is stable, and the US is looking ways to meet the legitimate needs of the Egyptian people “. Who would foresee the future on day 1? Arguable, you can still say the Egyptian government is stable now.

  6. Carolyn-Rodham permalink
    February 13, 2011 7:48 pm

    January 25: Thousands of Egyptians poured onto the streets of Cairo on Tuesday in a rare public display of animosity toward the government
    Obama: Silence

    January 27: Egyptian police shot dead one protester in the Sinai Peninsula on Thursday, raising the official death toll to at least five on the third day of public protests in the country. Other sources said this number may be much higher.
    Obama: The president opened his remarks by calling Egypt “an ally of ours on a lot of critical issues,”but added that people have the right “to
    express legitimate grievances. The government
    has to be careful about not resorting to violence,
    and the people on the streets have to be
    careful about not resorting to violence,” he said.

    January 28: Government shuts down Internet as protests grow larger and government-sponsored violence increases. Protests across the country spark massive government crackdown, leaving as many as 200 people or more dead on the worst day of violence in the demonstrations.
    The White House tiptoed gingerly toward solidarity with the protesters thronging Egyptian streets on a day of escalating rhetoric that culminated Friday evening with President Barack Obama making a televised appeal to the nation’s leader, Hosni Mubarak, to halt his crackdown and reform the government.“This moment of volatility has to be turned into a moment of promise,” Obama said, while calling on Mubarak “to refrain from any violence against peaceful protestors.” Obama stopped short of endorsing the protesters’ calls on Mubarak to step down, citing the American “close partnership” with Egypt.

    Jan 26 — Gibbs on behalf of Obama:
    Asked Wednesday whether the U.S. still supports Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs reiterated that Egypt remains “a strong ally” and stressed the importance of universal rights for the people of Egypt.

    [I could continue but you get the point]

    • Terry permalink
      February 13, 2011 8:16 pm

      Really good recap. Thanks.

  7. Carolyn-Rodham permalink
    February 13, 2011 11:10 pm

    One more post, then i’ll shut up.
    This was one of the comments to the link I posted above — love it!:

    “And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Hosni Mubarak. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my position in Africa, gave me a platform to address the Muslim world in Cairo, and laughed with me when we threw nickels at Rahm. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about the Muslim Brotherhood in non-secular terms, or treat Copts or Jews with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

    I can no more disown him than I can disown the Muslim community. I can no more disown him than I can the nation of Israel – a nation that helped elect me, a nation whose sacrifices I have demanded again and again, but a nation which is responsible for all the hatred and violence in the Middle East, and which on more than one occasion has embodied racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”

    -stuff Obama (might as well have) said
    Posted by: bgates | February 13, 2011 at 01:23 PM

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