Barack Obama, President Obama — February 2, 2011 at 6:39 pm

The foreign policy prescience of Barack Obama


First, a hat tip to my dear friend and fellow member of the Proud Pragmati, Blackwaterdog. If you haven’t checked out her blog, The only adult in the room, you should. She’s brilliant and is doing the job of keeping people informed about the successes of the Obama administration better than anyone else in the blogosphere.

To say that the past week has been an “interesting” foreign policy week for the Obama administration would be an an understatement. Egypt, one of the major players in the Middle East, is undergoing a transformational upheaval, one that will change the politics of the region for decades to come.

Of all the countries in the Middle East receiving aid from the USA, Egypt is second only to Israel. Their current leader, Hosni Mubarak, has been in power for 30 years after rising to power in the aftermath of the assassination of Anwar Sadat. The country has been operating almost continuously under near martial law (“Emergency Law”) since 1958. This change in their political framework has the potential to be very positive for Egyptians and their relationship with the USA. Likewise, it could be very damaging to this relationship. Much of this depends on how the new government is structured and how much freedom Egyptians reclaim as a result.

In the middle of all of this transition, the role of the USA as the second largest democracy on the planet cannot be ignored. The Obama administration has had to walk a very calculated and thought-out path this past week. Positive pressure, exerted with intelligence, diplomacy and tact could have a significantly positive effect on the outcome. Conversely, pressure applied ham-handedly and belligerently could have negative consequences that would harm our relationship with Egypt and their regional allies for years to come.

What has become very clear is how pitch-perfect President Obama and Hillary Clinton have navigated these treacherous waters. It is quite clear that President Obama established an important connection with Egyptians when he spoke to the Muslim world in his Cairo speech last year. But now we learn from Marc Ambinder that the seeds our current relationship with Egyptians was planted early in this presidency, a fact that refutes any suggestion that his foreign policy cred is somehow wanting or lacking.

A few months after Barack Obama took office, CIA analysts monitoring the Middle East received an unusual request from the National Security Council. The president had appreciated the in-depth country profiles the intelligence community had prepared for him to read. But there was something missing. The white papers all assessed what various groups within each country didn’t like about the United States – but there was very little about what they admired. So that’s what Obama wanted to know: What do Yemenis, Qataris and Egyptians like about the U.S.?

The answer, in the case of Egypt, was the American education system. The competition for visas to study inside the U.S., particularly among those with a bent toward the hard sciences, was fierce. And it was considered a point of pride for a family member to brag about his brother studying overseas. The National Security Council and the State Department turned this nugget of insight into policy: Obama would expand the number of educational visas available to qualified Egyptian students. The State Department would increase its direct outreach to Egyptians; it would hold entrepreneurship and science summits, and would convene gatherings of Egyptians to meet with visiting American scientists. 

As the White House’s focus turned to Egypt late last week, the aspirations of young Egyptians were very much on the president’s mind.

President Obama and his foreign policy staff, led by Secretary of State Clinton, have done a remarkable job of helping Egyptians move toward a more democratic society without being seen as puppet-masters or as being too intrusive or controlling. Much of the reason for this credibility with Egyptians and for the goodwill that we enjoy there is due to steps taken early in his Presidency. And it’s no accident.

I’m just sayin’…

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