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How Would a President McCain Have Responded to Egypt’s Uprising?

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen meets with Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Enan in Cairo on February 14, 2010. (photo: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Flickr)

Count me among those who constantly point out the dissonance between Democratic Primary Candidate Barack Obama’s progressive promises and the actions of President Barack Obama which tend to continue and even extend (as we see today on FISA) the Constitutional and international law abuses of George W. Bush. However, I am becoming more and more convinced that despite the accusations of fumbling and presenting multiple, conflicting public positions on the Egyptian uprising, a key strategic move by the Obama administration appears to have been communication to the Egyptian military that the US would move quickly to cut off financial aid to the military if it attacked peacefully demonstrating civilians. Would a President John McCain have taken this approach? I don’t think so, and we have his comments from last Saturday at the Munich Security Conference to support that idea.

On NPR this morning, host Scott Simon spoke with Professor Marc Lynch, who heads the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University. You can listen to the interview here. Note around the 2:30 mark, where Lynch highlighted the multiple levels of communication between the Obama administration and the Egyptian military where the consistent message was “Don’t be complicit in violence against the protesters”. Lynch then went on to point out that “Tienanmen in Tahrir was always a possibility” and the fact that that did not happen “is a testament to the Egyptian military”.

Now let’s go back exactly a week, to Senator John McCain’s appearance at the Munich Security Conference. Recall that violence, which was started by thugs from the Interior Ministry, had flared on Wednesday and Thursday of that week, so McCain was speaking just hours after a bit of calm had been restored. Although his speech had the proper flowery praise for the concept of democracy, in the end McCain just couldn’t give up on supporting Mubarak. It is especially important to note that he characterized the uprising as having radical roots, rather than representing the people as a whole. Of course, by describing the movement as “radical”, he is almost certainly referring to the involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood and is fanning the flames of fear and hatred against them.

Here are the key parts of his speech. First, the charge that this uprising is radical:

For even now, especially now, the lessons of Egypt appear clear: Three decades spent silencing moderate voices in order to fight extremist ones has had exactly the opposite effect: Radical groups are empowered, and responsible citizens are unorganized.

And now that he has identified the uprising as radical, he comes around to saying that we just can’t abandon our buddy Mubarak:

This is not to say that we should abandon partners of long-standing because of how they treat their people. We must remain partners, for many vital reasons, but the terms of our partnership need to change. We need to be more assisting, but also more insisting. Make no mistake, what is happening in Egypt is nothing short of a revolution, and it should put other undemocratic governments on notice that their presumed stability is a false stability. The choice they face is between a managed process of gradual reform that leads to political and economic openness – and a determined self-delusion that leads to revolutionary and potentially violent change. I wish the choice was not that stark, but recent events lead me to think otherwise.

It appears from McCain’s words here that he would have supported action by Mubarak to quash the “radical” uprising that was “potentially violent”, and McCain would have justified supporting such a move by saying that he was promoting Mubarak being in charge of “gradual reform”.

Such a stance is starkly different than the one chosen by Obama. Note this article in the New York Times published online late Thursday night for Friday’s print edition. It provides detail on the key move by the Egyptian military to inform the protesters that their demands would be met:

The protesters’ hopes soared Thursday afternoon, when the chief of staff of the armed forces, Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Enan, visited Tahrir Square in Cairo and suggested that their demands would soon be met. He also presided along with the defense minister, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, over a meeting of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Paul J. Sullivan, an expert on the Egyptian military at the National Defense University, said it was only the third time in Egypt’s history that the council had met; the other meetings were during wars with Israel in 1967 and 1973.

Neither Mr. Mubarak nor Mr. Suleiman were at the meeting, and the resulting communiqué declared that the council had met “in affirmation of support for the legitimate demands of the people.” So it came as a shock when Mr. Mubarak said he was not stepping down.


His [Suleiman’s] relationship with General Enan is unclear. General Enan, 63, is a generation younger than Mr. Mubarak. He has spent extended periods in the United States and is closer to American commanders than the oldest Egyptian military leaders, including Mr. Tantawi, 75, the defense minister, who were trained by the Soviet Union.

American officials said General Enan had offered them assurances that the armed forces would defend Egyptian institutions, not individuals, and that they would not open fire on civilians. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has commended the Egyptian military for what he called “exemplary” conduct amid the street protests and said it had “made a contribution to the evolution of democracy.”

Now look back at the photo at the top of this post. That is Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen meeting with General Enan almost exactly a year ago, on February 14 of last year. I find it highly doubtful that a President McCain would have cultivated a high-level relationship with General Enan that would have led to his historic meeting with the protesters to assure them that their demands would be met. Instead, I think McCain would have simply looked the other way while watching Mubarak stand down the military while the Interior Ministry turned Tahrir into Tienanmen II.

In this one matter, Obama has shown an ability to get a major issue right. Why can’t he do so on illegal wiretapping, indefinite detention without trial, extrajudicial executions, rendition, torture, state secrets and corporate bailouts at the expense of the working poor?

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Jim White

Jim White

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