Monday, April 25, 2011


Ryan Lizza

Barack Obama came to Washington just six years ago, having spent his professional life as a part-time lawyer, part-time law professor, and part-time state legislator in Illinois. As an undergraduate, he took courses in history and international relations, but neither his academic life nor his work in Springfield gave him an especially profound grasp of foreign affairs. As he coasted toward winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, in 2004, he began to reach out to a broad range of foreign-policy experts––politicians, diplomats, academics, and journalists.

As a student during the Reagan years, Obama gravitated toward conventionally left-leaning positions. At Occidental, he demonstrated in favor of divesting from apartheid South Africa. At Columbia, he wrote a forgettable essay in Sundial, a campus publication, in favor of the nuclear-freeze movement. As a professor at the University of Chicago, he focused on civil-rights law and race. And, as a candidate who emphasized his “story,” Obama argued that what he lacked in experience with foreign affairs he made up for with foreign travel: four years in Indonesia as a boy, and trips to Pakistan, India, Kenya, and Europe during and after college. But there was no mistaking the lightness of his résumé. Just a year before coming to Washington, State Senator Obama was not immersed in the dangers of nuclear Pakistan or an ascendant China; as a provincial legislator, he was investigating the dangers of a toy known as the Yo-Yo Water Ball. (He tried, unsuccessfully, to have it banned.)

Obama had always read widely, and now he was determined to get a deeper education. He read popular books on foreign affairs by Fareed Zakaria and Thomas Friedman. He met with Anthony Lake, who had left the Nixon Administration over Vietnam and went on to work in Democratic Administrations, and with Susan Rice, who had served in the Clinton Administration and carried with her the guilt of having failed to act to prevent the Rwandan genocide. He also contacted Samantha Power, a thirty-four-year-old journalist and Harvard professor specializing in human rights. In her twenties, Power had reported from the Balkans and witnessed the campaigns of ethnic cleansing there. In 2002, after graduating from Harvard Law School, she wrote “A Problem from Hell,” which surveyed the grim history of six genocides committed in the twentieth century. Propounding a liberal-interventionist view, Power argued that “mass killing” on the scale of Rwanda or Bosnia must be prevented by other nations, including the United States. She wrote that America and its allies rarely have perfect information about when a regime is about to commit genocide; a President, therefore, must have “a bias toward belief” that massacres are imminent. Stopping the execution of thousands of foreigners, she wrote, was, in some cases, worth the cost in dollars, troops, and strained alliances. The book, which was extremely influential, especially on the left, won a Pulitzer Prize, in 2003. Critics considered her views radical and dangerously impractical.

After reading “A Problem from Hell,” Obama invited Power to dinner. He said he wanted to talk about foreign policy. The meal lasted four hours. As a fledgling member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and an ambitious politician with his sights set on higher office, Obama agreed to have Power spend a year in his office as a foreign-policy fellow.

In his first news conference after winning election to the Senate, the press asked whether he intended to run for President, but he assured reporters, as well as his aides, that he would not even consider it until 2012 or 2016. He knew that he could not have a serious impact on issues like Iraq or the Sudan as a junior committee member, but he was determined to learn the institution and to acquire, as Hillary Clinton had, a reputation not for celebrity but for substance. In foreign affairs, as in so much else, he was determined to break free of the old ideologies and categories. But he would take it step by step.

Obama entered the Senate in 2005, at a moment of passionate foreign-policy debate within the Democratic Party. The invasion of Iraq was seen as interventionism executed under false pretenses and with catastrophic consequences. Many on the left argued that liberal interventionists, particularly in Congress and in the press, had given crucial cover to the Bush Administration during the run-up to the war. Hillary Clinton, who often sided with the humanitarian hawks in her husband’s White House, and who went on to vote for the Iraq war, in 2002, seemed to some to be the embodiment of all that had gone wrong.

One reaction among liberals to the Bush years and to Iraq was to retreat from “idealism” toward “realism,” in which the United States would act cautiously and, above all, according to national interests rather than moral imperatives. The debate is rooted in the country’s early history. America, John Quincy Adams argued, “does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to freedom and independence of all,” but the “champion and vindicator only of her own.”

In 1966, Adams’s words were repeated by George Kennan, perhaps the most articulate realist of the twentieth century, in opposing the Vietnam War. To Kennan and his intellectual followers, foreign-policy problems are always more complicated than Americans, in their native idealism, usually allow. The use of force to stop human-rights abuses or to promote democracy, they argue, usually ends poorly. In the fall of 2002, six months before the invasion of Iraq, Kennan said, “Today, if we went into Iraq, as the President would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end.”

As Obama sorted through the arguments, other foreign-policy liberals were determined to prevent Iraq from besmirching the whole program of liberal internationalism. Humanitarian intervention—which Power helped advance, though she vigorously opposed the Iraq War—should not be abandoned because of the failures in Baghdad. Nor should American diplomacy turn away from emphasizing the virtues of bringing the world democracy. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor of international affairs at Princeton and a Democrat, wrote in the liberal journal Democracy that an overreaction to the Bush years might mean that “realists could again rule the day, embracing order and stability over ideology and values.”

After little more than a year in the Senate, Obama was bored, and began to take seriously the frequent calls to run for President. To be a candidate, he needed to distinguish himself from his foremost potential opponent, Hillary Clinton, as well as from President Bush. One of the clearest paths to distinction, especially in the primaries, was to emphasize his early opposition, as a state senator, to the Iraq war. He started to move away from the ideas of people like Power and Slaughter. He pointedly noted that George H. W. Bush’s management of the end of the Cold War was masterly. The President had sometimes kept quiet about the aspirations of pro-democracy activists in Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere, in order to maintain the confidence of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremlin. It was just the sort of political performance to which Obama aspired.

In making the case against Hillary Clinton, Obama slyly argued that the George W. Bush years were in some ways a continuation of the Bill Clinton years, and that the United States needed to return to the philosophy of an earlier era. The proselytizing about democracy and the haste to bomb other countries in the name of humanitarian aid had “stretched our military to the breaking point and distracted us from the growing threats of a dangerous world,” Obama said in a speech in 2006, a few weeks before he announced his Presidential candidacy. He spoke of “a strategy no longer driven by ideology and politics but one that is based on a realistic assessment of the sobering facts on the ground and our interests in the region. This kind of realism has been missing since the very conception of this war, and it is what led me to publicly oppose it in 2002.”

In 2007, Obama called Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national-security adviser and the reigning realist of the Democratic foreign-policy establishment. Obama told him that he had read his recent book, “Second Chance,” in which Brzezinski criticized Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush and their handling of the post-Cold War world. They began to speak and exchange e-mails about policy, and Brzezinski travelled with Obama during a stretch of the campaign. In September, 2007, Brzezinski introduced Obama at an event in Clinton, Iowa, where the candidate discussed the failures in Iraq. “I thought he had a really incisive grasp of what the twenty-first century is all about and how America has to relate to it,” Brzezinski told me. “He was reacting in a way that I very much shared, and we had a meeting of the minds—namely, that George Bush put the United States on a suicidal course.”

As he campaigned in New Hampshire, in 2007, Obama said that he would not leave troops in Iraq even to stop genocide. “Well, look, if that’s the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces, then by that argument you would have three hundred thousand troops in the Congo right now, where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife, which we haven’t done,” he said. “We would be deploying unilaterally and occupying the Sudan, which we haven’t done.”

At a campaign event in Pennsylvania, Obama said, “The truth is that my foreign policy is actually a return to the traditional bipartisan realistic policy of George Bush’s father, of John F. Kennedy, of, in some ways, Ronald Reagan.”

In the end, Barack Obama overcame Hillary Clinton’s campaign warnings that he was too callow, too naïve about dealing with rogue regimes, too untested to respond to the “3 A.M.” emergencies from all corners of the globe. Obama entered the White House at a moment of radical transition in global politics, and one of his most significant appointments was Clinton as his Secretary of State. Although he had made plain in the campaign that he disagreed with some of her foreign-policy views, he admired her discipline and believed that, as a member of the Cabinet, she wouldn’t publicly break with the President. And he would need her. Obama faced economic catastrophe at home and American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; serious regional threats from Pakistan and Iran; global terrorism; the ascendance of China and India; and a situation that was almost impossible to discuss—a vivid sense of American decline.

American values and interests are woven together, and no President is always either an idealist or a realist. Officials who identify with the same label often disagree with one another. Humanitarian interventionists were divided over the Iraq war; Cold War realists had split over détente with the Soviet Union. The categories describe only broad ideological directions and tendencies. But, as Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, observed, “the battle between realists and idealists is the fundamental fault line of the American foreign-policy debate.”

After the Inauguration, the realists began to win that debate within the Administration. The two most influential foreign-policy advisers in the White House are Thomas Donilon, the national-security adviser, and Denis McDonough, a deputy national-security adviser. Donilon, who is fifty-five, is a longtime Washington lawyer, lobbyist, and Democratic Party strategist. McDonough started out as a congressional staffer and campaign adviser to Obama, a role that has given him a reputation as a non-ideological political fixer.

The National Security Council is a bureaucracy that helps the President streamline decision-making, and Donilon seems to have thought extensively about how that system works. Like the President, he values staff discretion. His rule for hiring at the N.S.C. is to find people who are, in his words, “high value, low maintenance.” Obama’s N.S.C. adopted the model of the first Bush Administration. “It’s essentially based on the process that was put in place by General Brent Scowcroft and Bob Gates in the late nineteen-eighties,” Donilon told me, speaking of Bush’s national-security adviser and his deputy, the current Secretary of Defense. The most important feature, Donilon said, is that the N.S.C., based at the White House, controls “the sole process through which policy would be developed.”

One of Donilon’s overriding beliefs, which Obama adopted as his own, was that America needed to rebuild its reputation, extricate itself from the Middle East and Afghanistan, and turn its attention toward Asia and China’s unchecked influence in the region. America was “overweighted” in the former and “underweighted” in the latter, Donilon told me. “We’ve been on a little bit of a Middle East detour over the course of the last ten years,” Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said. “And our future will be dominated utterly and fundamentally by developments in Asia and the Pacific region.”

In December, 2009, Obama announced that he would draw down U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan by the end of his first term. He also promised, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly last year, that he was “moving toward a more targeted approach” that “dismantles terrorist networks without deploying large American armies.”

“The project of the first two years has been to effectively deal with the legacy issues that we inherited, particularly the Iraq war, the Afghan war, and the war against Al Qaeda, while rebalancing our resources and our posture in the world,” Benjamin Rhodes, one of Obama’s deputy national-security advisers, said. “If you were to boil it all down to a bumper sticker, it’s ‘Wind down these two wars, reëstablish American standing and leadership in the world, and focus on a broader set of priorities, from Asia and the global economy to a nuclear-nonproliferation regime.’ ”

Obama’s lengthy bumper-sticker credo did not include a call to promote democracy or protect human rights. Obama aides who focussed on these issues were awarded lesser White House positions. Samantha Power became senior director of multilateral affairs at the N.S.C. Michael McFaul, a Stanford professor who believes that the U.S. should make democracy promotion the heart of its foreign policy, landed a mid-level position at the White House.

Most of the foreign-policy issues that Obama emphasized in his first two years involved stepping away from idealism. In the hope of persuading Iran’s regime to abandon its nuclear ambitions, Obama pointedly rejected Bush’s “axis of evil” terminology. In a video message to Iranians on March 20, 2009, he respectfully addressed “the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” In order to engage China on economic issues, Obama didn’t press very hard on human rights. And, because any effort to push the Israelis and Palestinians toward a final settlement would benefit from help from Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, Obama was not especially outspoken about the sins of Middle Eastern autocrats and kings.

Despite the realist tilt, Obama has argued from the start that he was anti-ideological, that he defied traditional categories and ideologies. In Oslo, in December of 2009, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama said, “Within America, there has long been a tension between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists—a tension that suggests a stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values around the world.” The speech echoed Obama’s 2002 address to an antiwar demonstration in Chicago’s Federal Plaza. In Chicago, he had confounded his leftist audience by emphasizing the need to fight some wars, but not “dumb” ones, like the one in Iraq. In Oslo, he surprised a largely left-leaning audience by talking about the martial imperatives of a Commander-in-Chief overseeing two wars. Obama’s aides often insist that he is an anti-ideological politician interested only in what actually works. He is, one says, a “consequentialist.”

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton turned her department into something of a haven for the ideas that flourished late in the Clinton Administration. She picked Anne-Marie Slaughter as her director of policy planning—a job first held by George Kennan, in the Truman Administration. She also brought in Harold Koh, the State Department’s legal adviser and a scholar on issues concerning human rights and democracy. Walking around the mazelike building in Foggy Bottom, you get the sense that if you duck into any office you will find earnest young women and men discussing globalization, the possibility that Facebook can topple tyrannies, and what is called “soft power,” the ability to bend the world toward your view through attraction, not coercion.

Not long ago, I met with Kris Balderston, the State Department’s representative for global partnerships. He started working with Clinton ten years ago, when he guided her through the politics of upstate New York during her Senate race. Now he works on an array of entrepreneurial projects that complement traditional diplomacy. He talked excitedly about working with Vietnamese-Americans to build stronger ties to Vietnam and about distributing vaccines in partnership with Coca-Cola. He pointed to a bookcase stocked with devices that looked like a cross between a lantern and a paint bucket. These were advanced cookstoves. “This is a problem that the Secretary saw when she was First Lady,” Balderston said, explaining how lethal cooking smoke can be. “One half of the world cooks in open fires. Two million people die a year from it—that’s more than malaria and tuberculosis combined, and nearly as much as H.I.V.” On a trip to Congo in 2009, Clinton met a woman in a refugee camp who had been raped in the jungle on the outskirts of the camp while gathering wood for her stove. Telling the story at the State Department, Clinton was angrier than Balderston had ever seen her. “We have got to do something about this,” she said. Balderston spends much of his time trying to build a market for inexpensive, clean-burning cookstoves in the developing world.

But Clinton’s involvement in soft-power initiatives was matched by the kind of hardheadedness about foreign policy she had displayed during her Presidential campaign. She has repeatedly aligned herself with the most consistent realist in the Obama Administration: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who was deputy national-security adviser in the first Bush Administration and Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush. Clinton’s advisers told me that, during her first two years in Foggy Bottom, Clinton agreed with Gates on every major issue.

“Secretary Clinton can push the agenda she pushes because she is tough and people know she is tough,” Slaughter said. “It’s very interesting—you’ve had three women Secretaries of State, and she’s the first one who can stand up and say publicly, ‘We are going to empower women and girls around the world. We are going to make development a priority of foreign policy. We are going to engage people as well as governments.’

“Madeleine Albright believed in the importance of those issues, but she could never have made it the core of her public agenda. She was the first woman Secretary of State, which meant that she had to out-tough the tough guys. She did that on the Balkans. Condi Rice helped double foreign aid, but she was first and foremost a Cold Warrior, and she could throw around ‘I.C.B.M.’s and ‘S.L.B.M.’s and ‘MIRV’s with the best of them. That was the only way she could make it, not only as a woman in the nineteen-eighties but as an African-American woman. You had to be way tougher and way more knowledgeable about weapons than any man.” A former Administration official said, “Hillary has to guard her flank. And one of the ways she guards her flank is she rarely deviates from Gates. If she and Gates both weigh in, they are much more likely to get their way.”

Obama’s first test at managing the clashing ideologies within his Administration came during the review of Afghanistan policy in 2009. During the campaign, Obama said that he would add troops in Afghanistan, a war, he argued, that Bush had neglected. But Obama’s campaign promise bumped hard against the judgment of several new advisers, including Richard Holbrooke, who tried to convince the President that sending forty thousand more troops to Afghanistan, as the military urged, was counterproductive. It would prevent Obama from rebalancing American foreign policy toward the Pacific, and it would have little impact on Al Qaeda, which is based largely in Pakistan. Obama had appointed Holbrooke his Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Holbrooke, a brash and influential diplomat, found himself in the unusual circumstance of being ignored. He wanted to send far fewer troops and reënergize regional diplomacy, including reconciliation talks with the Taliban. He believed that the lesson of Vietnam was that the diplomats, rather than the generals, needed to be in charge, but he could rarely penetrate the insular world of Obama’s White House to make that case to the President.

Holbrooke had been a devoted supporter of Hillary Clinton during the Presidential campaign, and she protected him from Obama aides who viewed with suspicion his sizable ego and stream of positive press clippings. When a top official at the White House tried to push Holbrooke out, in early 2010, Clinton intervened on his behalf. But Holbrooke still could not get a one-on-one meeting with the President. And at the crucial national-security meetings on Afghanistan Clinton did not adopt Holbrooke’s views. She sided with Gates and the generals in calling for the maximum number of soldiers to surge into Afghanistan. Obama agreed to send thirty thousand more troops, although he insisted that they would start coming home in July, 2011. Holbrooke’s widow, the writer Kati Marton, who has been reviewing her husband’s memos and archives, told me that they “tell a dramatic story of a fractured relationship between the State Department and White House.”

On December 11, 2010, while meeting with Clinton at the State Department, Holbrooke suffered a split aorta, and he died forty-eight hours later. Bill Clinton spoke at Holbrooke’s memorial service, held on January 14th at the Kennedy Center. “I loved the guy—because he could do,” Clinton said. “Doing in diplomacy saves lives.” He went on, “And I never did understand how people would let a little rough edges, which to me was so obvious what he was doing, it was so obvious why he felt the way he did—I could never understand people who didn’t appreciate him.” Several people told Marton they thought that Bill Clinton was sending a message to Obama.

In the end, Obama made a decision about Afghanistan that was at odds with his own goal of rebalancing toward Asia and the Pacific. “The U.S. has been on a greater Middle East detour largely of its own choosing through a war of choice in Iraq and what became a war of choice in 2009 in Afghanistan,” Haass said. “Afghanistan is entirely inconsistent with the focus of time and resources on Asia. If your goal is to reorient or refocus or rebalance U.S. policy, the Administration’s commitment to so doing is at the moment more rhetorical than actual.”

Obama came into office emphasizing bureaucratic efficiency, which he believed would lead to wise rulings. But the Afghanistan decision, like all government work, was driven by politics and ideology. Obama’s eagerness to keep his campaign promise, the military’s view that reducing troops meant a loss of face, Clinton’s decision to align with Gates, and Holbrooke’s inability to influence the White House staff all ultimately conspired to push Obama toward the surge.

Obama’s other key campaign promise—to engage with the leaders of countries hostile to the U.S.—sometimes meant deëmphasizing democracy and human rights, which had been tainted by Bush’s “freedom agenda” in the Middle East. Tyrannical regimes are less likely to make deals with you if you talk persistently about overthrowing them. Obama’s speech in Cairo, delivered on June 4, 2009, and devoted to improving America’s relationship with the Muslim world, was organized as a list of regional priorities. He discussed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Arab-Israeli peace, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He then gave a hesitant endorsement of America’s commitment to democracy in the region. He began, “I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.”

A week later, however, a disputed Presidential election in Iran triggered large demonstrations there, which were soon labelled the Green Revolution. For the first five months after his Inauguration, Obama had tried to engage with the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in an effort to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Now he faced the choice between keeping his distance and coming to the aid of the nascent pro-democracy movement, which was rallying behind Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who had finished second behind Ahmadinejad. Obama chose to keep his distance, providing only mild rhetorical support. In an interview with CNBC after the protests began, he said that “the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised.”

During the peak of the protests in Iran, Jared Cohen, a young staffer at the State Department who worked for Slaughter, contacted officials at Twitter and asked the company not to perform a planned upgrade that would have shut down the service temporarily in Iran, where protesters were using it to get information to the international media. The move violated Obama’s rule of non-interference.

White House officials “were so mad that somebody had actually ‘interfered’ in Iranian politics, because they were doing their damnedest to not interfere,” the former Administration official said. “Now, to be fair to them, it was also the understanding that if we interfered it could look like the Green movement was Western-backed, but that really wasn’t the core of it. The core of it was we were still trying to engage the Iranian government and we did not want to do anything that made us side with the protesters. To the Secretary’s credit, she realized, I think, before other people, that this is ridiculous, that we had to change our line.” The official said that Cohen “almost lost his job over it. If it had been up to the White House, they would have fired him.”

Clinton did not betray any disagreement with the President over Iran policy, but in an interview with me she cited Cohen’s action with pride. “When it came to the elections, we had a lot of messages from people inside Iran and their supporters outside of Iran saying, ‘For heaven’s sakes, don’t claim this as part of the democracy agenda. This is indigenous to us. We are struggling against this tyrannical regime. If you are too outspoken in our support, we will lose legitimacy!’ Now, that’s a tough balancing act. It’s easy to stand up if you don’t worry about the consequences. Now, we were very clear in saying, ‘We are supporting those who are protesting peacefully,’ and we put our social-media gurus at work in trying to keep connections going, so that we helped to provide that base for communicating that was necessary for the demonstrations.”

One suggestion that came up in interviews with Obama’s current and former foreign-policy advisers was that the Administration’s policy debates sometimes broke down along gender lines. The realists who view foreign policy as a great chess game—and who want to focus on China and India—are usually men. The idealists, who talk about democracy and human rights, are often women. (White House officials told me that this critique is outlandish.)

Slaughter, who admired Clinton but felt alienated by people at the White House, resigned in February, and in her farewell speech at the State Department she described a gender divide at the heart of Obama’s foreign-policy team. She argued that in the twenty-first century America needed to focus on societies as well as on states. “Unfortunately, the people who focus on those two worlds here in Washington are still often very different groups. The world of states is still the world of high politics, hard power, realpolitik, and, largely, men,” she said. “The world of societies is still too often the world of low politics, soft power, human rights, democracy, and development, and, largely, women. One of the best parts of my two years here has been the opportunity to work with so many amazing and talented women—truly extraordinary people. But Washington still has a ways to go before their voices are fully heard and respected.”

On August 12, 2010, Obama sent a five-page memorandum called “Political Reform in the Middle East and North Africa” to Vice-President Joseph Biden, Clinton, Gates, Donilon, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the other senior members of his foreign-policy team. Though the Iranian regime had effectively crushed the Green Revolution, the country was still experiencing sporadic protests. Egypt would face crucial parliamentary elections in November. The memo began with a stark conclusion about trends in the region.

“Progress toward political reform and openness in the Middle East and North Africa lags behind other regions and has, in some cases, stalled,” the President wrote. He noted that even the more liberal countries were cracking down on public gatherings, the press, and political opposition groups. But something was stirring. There was “evidence of growing citizen discontent with the region’s regimes,” he wrote. It was likely that “if present trends continue,” allies there would “opt for repression rather than reform to manage domestic dissent.”

Obama’s analysis showed a desire to balance interests and ideals. The goals of reform and democracy were couched in the language of U.S. interests rather than the sharp moral language that statesmen often use in public. “Increased repression could threaten the political and economic stability of some of our allies, leave us with fewer capable, credible partners who can support our regional priorities, and further alienate citizens in the region,” Obama wrote. “Moreover, our regional and international credibility will be undermined if we are seen or perceived to be backing repressive regimes and ignoring the rights and aspirations of citizens.”

Obama instructed his staff to come up with “tailored,” “country by country” strategies on political reform. He told his advisers to challenge the traditional idea that stability in the Middle East always served U.S. interests. Obama wanted to weigh the risks of both “continued support for increasingly unpopular and repressive regimes” and a “strong push by the United States for reform.”

He also wrote that “the advent of political succession in a number of countries offers a potential opening for political reform in the region.” If the United States managed the coming transitions “poorly,” it “could have negative implications for U.S. interests, including for our standing among Arab publics.”

The review was led by three N.S.C. staffers: Samantha Power, Gayle Smith, who works on development issues, and Dennis Ross, a Middle East expert with a broad portfolio in the White House. Soon, they and officials from other agencies were sitting in the White House, debating the costs and benefits of supporting autocrats. A White House official involved said the group studied “the taboos, all the questions you’re not supposed to ask.” For example, they tested the assumption that the President could not publicly criticize President Hosni Mubarak because it would jeopardize Egypt’s coöperation on issues related to Israel or its assistance in tracking terrorists. Not true, they concluded: the Egyptians pursued peace with Israel and crushed terrorists because it was in their interest to do so, not because the U.S. asked them to. (Uh..not the approach Egypt is following now)

They tested the idea that countries with impoverished populations needed to develop economically before they were prepared for open political systems—a common argument that democracy promoters often run up against. Again, they concluded that the conventional wisdom was wrong. “All roads led to political reform,” the White House official said.

The group was just finishing its work, on December 17th, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a vegetable vender in Tunisia, set himself on fire outside a municipal building to protest the corruption of the country’s political system––an act that inspired protests in Tunisia and, eventually, the entire region. Democracy in the Middle East, one of the most fraught issues of the Bush years, was suddenly the signature conflict of Obama’s foreign policy.

On January 25th, the first, crucial day of the protests in Egypt, and eleven days after the removal of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, in Tunisia, Secretary Clinton declared her support for free assembly, but added, “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” That evening, Obama delivered his State of the Union address, in which he praised the demonstrators in Tunisia, “where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator,” and expressed support for the “democratic aspirations of all people.” But he did not mention Egypt. Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, one of the leaders of the coalition that started the Egyptian revolution, told me that the message the protesters got from the Obama Administration on the first day of the revolution was “Go home. We need this regime.”

A number of familiar ex-diplomats and politicians, led by Dick Cheney, Henry Kissinger, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, criticized the treatment of Mubarak, and Israel and Saudi Arabia called on the Administration to stick with him. But, as the protests strengthened, it became clear that Mubarak was doomed. According to a senior Administration official, “The question in our mind was ‘How do you manage that?’ ”

Obama’s instinct was to try to have it both ways. He wanted to position the United States on the side of the protesters: it’s always a good idea, politically, to support brave young men and women risking their lives for freedom, especially when their opponent is an eighty-two-year-old dictator with Swiss bank accounts. Some of Obama’s White House aides regretted having stood idly by while the Iranian regime brutally suppressed the Green Revolution; Egypt offered a second chance. Nonetheless, Obama wanted to assure other autocratic allies that the U.S. did not hastily abandon its friends, and he feared that the uprising could spin out of control. “Look at all the revolutions in history, especially the ones that are driven from the ground up, and they tend to be very chaotic and hard to find an equilibrium,” one senior official said. The French Revolution, for instance, he said, “ended up in chaos, and they ended up with Bonaparte.” Obama’s ultimate position, it seemed, was to talk like an idealist while acting like a realist.

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