In a striking newspaper column in the liberal Israeli daily, Ha’aretz, its chief diplomatic correspondent, Aluf Benn, writes that if Jimmy Carter went down in history as “the president who lost Iran,” Barack Obama will be known as the president who “lost Turkey, Lebanon, and Egypt.” U.S. policy has indeed been the focus of Israeli commentary in the last 24 hours. President Obama’s tone towards President Mubarak struck many in Israel as surprisingly harsh. Obama disclosed in a press conference on January 28 that after hearing Mubarak’s speech to the Egyptian people, he told the Egyptian president over the phone that “he had a responsibility to give meaning to those words.” Obama insisted that the Egyptian leadership “take concrete steps” and not limit itself to rhetorical promises alone.
But it was White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs who went beyond Obama by issuing what sounded like an implicit threat to Egypt. At a press briefing, Gibbs stated that the Egyptian government had to address the “legitimate grievances” of the Egyptian people “immediately.” A journalist in the press briefing room then popped the question to Gibbs: “You say that these legitimate grievances have to be addressed. I’m wondering. Or what?” Gibbs came back: “We will be reviewing our assistance posture based on events that take place in the coming days.” In other words, precisely when the Egyptian government had its back to the wall with the worst protests in recent Egyptian history, the White House press secretary threatened the embattled Mubarak with a cut in U.S. foreign aid. Israel’s largest newspaper, Yisrael Hayom, reported these events with a headline: “Obama Against Mubarak.”
Presumably, the U.S. government had its reasons for holding Mubarak at arms length. If they embraced their old ally, at this time, they could undermine him. Moreover, Washington was displeased with the Egyptian government for not adhering to U.S. political advice. Mubarak had been reluctant to take U.S. advice on political reform. In 2005, when he listened to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s demands to open up the Egyptian parliamentary elections, the numbers of elected members of the Muslim Brotherhood vastly increased from 15 seats to 88 out of the 454-member Egyptian Parliament. The Obama administration was not alone in expressing its frustration with Mubarak. Indeed, leading editorials took a hard line against him, as well. Aluf Benn thus concluded that there was a sense in the last few days that “the U.S. foreign policy establishment was shaking off its long-term protege in Cairo.”
Whatever the motivation was in Washington, the rough handling of Mubarak will have long-term implications. Egypt is a critical country. The Suez Canal, that connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean, runs through its territory. With Egypt in hostile hands, how will the U.S. reinforce the Persian Gulf from Europe? Intercontinental air routes fly over Egyptian territory, as well. But the real problem will be the reaction of other American allies in the Middle East. What kind of signal did Gibbs’ threat about cutting aid send to King Abdullah of Jordan or to President Saleh of Yemen, as well as to other allies in the Persian Gulf? Did it mean that as soon as an Arab leader gets into trouble, he starts to get disowned? Egypt had its problems, but the approach taken towards this old U.S. ally will have implications across the Arab world in the months ahead.
The writer, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN, is president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.