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Friday, April 22, 2011

The Obama Administration on Democratic Protesters in the Middle East: Prudent & Measured Calculation instead of Principled Leadership

Despite several days of overwhelming popular grass-roots protest in Egypt, on January 30, 2011, the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, stopped short of urging the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, to resign.  According to The New York Times, she spoke of "a process that must include a government dialogue with the protesters and “free, fair, and credible” elections, scheduled for September." In the face of overwhelming protests going on in Egypt, the top U.S. diplomat was urging a dialogue in January through the following September. Specifically, she declared, “We have been very clear that we want to see a transition to democracy. . . . And we want to see the kind of steps taken to bring that about. We want to see an orderly transition.” 

On February 1, 2011, The New York Times reported that Barak Obama had sent a message to Mubarak urging the Egyptian president not run for reelection the following September. According to officials, it "was not a blunt demand for Mr. Mubarak to step aside now, but firm counsel that he should make way for a reform process that would culminate in free and fair elections in September to elect a new Egyptian leader." According to The New York Times, Obama was engaging in a diplomatic balancing act by "resisting calls for Mr. Mubarak to step down, even [while calling] for an 'orderly transition' to a more politically open Egypt." It was  not clear whether the Obama administration favored Mubarak turning over the reins to a transitional government.

On February 5, 2011, The New York Times reported that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "said that Mr. Mubarak’s immediate resignation might complicate, rather than clear, Egypt’s path to democracy, given the requirements of Egypt’s Constitution." Not coincidentally, Israeli officials, who had long viewed Mubarak as a stabilizing influence in a dangerous region, "made clear to the administration that they support evolution rather than revolution in Egypt." Accordingly, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden urged Vice President Suleiman on February 8th to take specific steps toward democracy.

As it turned out, the American-urged baby steps toward overturning a dictator friendly to the U.S. paled in comparison to events taking place in Egypt. Ironically, the Egyptian military took the moral high ground and effectively pushed Mubarak aside and then even prosecuted his sons for abuse of power. Actions speak louder than words, and in this case even the words coming from the Obama administration were languid and self-compromising. This is ironic, given Barak Obama’s 2008 campaign pledge to enact real change. One would have expected principled leadership rather than status quo from the breath of fresh air in the White House.

So it is perhaps no surprise that on April 22, 2011, when, according to MSNBC, “(s)ome 27 protesters [and perhaps 44 more] were killed when Syrian security forces fired live bullets and tear gas at tens of thousands of people shouting for freedom and democracy,” the American administration did not react by leading an international coalition into Syria to protect the protesters against their own ruler. Fox News was reporting at least 49 killed, and yet, a few days later--as the Sryian government was sending tanks into Dara'a with at least 25 killed--the White House was considering a freeze on assets and a ban on business dealings.

While the administration's spokesman said that the "brutal violence used by the government of Syria against its people is completely deplorable" and "unacceptable," the policies being considered say otherwise, especially given the American response against similar brutality by Qaddafi. The administration was not even out in front on this issue at the U.N. Security Council. According to The Wall Street Journal on April 26th,  "British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain was working with other members of the United Nations Security Council 'to send a strong signal to the Syrian authorities that the eyes of the international community are on Syria.'" The Security Council soon dead-locked.  Sen. McCain was quoted as telling Al-Jazeera, "I don't see a military intervention as a solution (in Syria). I just don't see the scenerio, so I don't support such a thing." He went on to say that the world should offer its "moral support" to the protesters. Meanwhile, the U.S. requested that the U.N.'s Human Rights Council look into the matter. This route falls seriously short of the Security Council's "all necessary means" No-Fly-Zone over Libya.

Obama had worked through the U.N. Security Council in order to impose a No-Fly-Zone over Libya. However, even then, it was a month-long diplomatic approach rather than a case of principled leadership protecting the protesters while they were still unarmed. By the time of the Council's resolution, the impact of the Libyan turmoil on oil markets was clear to the administration. In contrast, the Syrian ruler, who had killed 400 protesters by April 26th, was useful to the U.S. strategically with respect to a peace-agreement on Israel so a mere hand-slapping would suffice.

Therefore, in spite of a Syrian protester at the time saying, “Our regime is the most brutal and scary in the Middle East. It has no values and can easily kill its own people,” the Obama administration was considering merely financial sanctions as the American military was sending predator drones into Libya and bombing Qaddafi's compound. Coming after five weeks of protests, the bloody turn by the Sryian ruler in violation of his obligation to protect his citizens was significant enough to end his sovereign right to rule, yet the world had neither the will for principled leadership nor a mechanism for international intervention beyond putting Syria on notice at the U.N. and referring the matter to the International Criminal Court for possible, eventual prosecution.

                            Getty Images (in MSNBC.com article) 

With regard to the American position, the problem involved prioritizing self-interested calculation over principled leadership.  The American society had embraced the bureaucratic age such that leadership had generally been replaced by incremental strategic management--even in the Oval Office. Sadly,  being "professional" had replaced being "principled," such that the highest officials in the U.S. Government privileged the expertise of immediate tactical advantage over the principles that were innately felt by the Egyptian protesters (and presumably by ordinary Americans as well).  The American "leaders" had forgotten that in trying to have it both ways, they would be apt to end up stagnate, confused, and not well respected.  Were the officials bold in putting principle above immediate tactical advantage, I submit that the tenor of the U.S. government would better reflect the values of the American people. In the context of the Egyptian and Syrian protests, as in that of the preceding Iranian protests, people the world over were crying out--yearning--for principled leadership rather than professional bureaucrats in the U.S. Government.

It is in human nature to value and respect leaders who have the courage of conviction to say, "This might piss off some powerful people whom I could otherwise use, but this is what we as Americans believe in." Simply stated, the belief is that a government is no longer legitimate if it loses the consent of a significant number of citizens, especially if they are willing to put everything on the line to "just say no" with their lives. In the face of such courage, the attempt by American officials to "managerialize" leadership into self-maximizing strategy answers the protesters’ principled leadership with "tactic as leadership." Generally speaking, too many managers (in business as well as government) want to use the nomenclature of leadership without actually leading. There is indeed an expertise in principled leadership, and I suspect an instinct for it, which the typical manager (whether in business or government) does not have. I contend that principled leadership is more valuable than technical expertise in the upper echelons of organizations. "Prudent" and "incremental" were not the words that came to my mind in watching the popular protests in Egypt and Syria in 2011. It was far easier for me to agree with the protesters in the Middle East than with my own government. Sometimes principled and courageous action is more human (and humane) than is prudent bureaucratic calculation.


Mark Landler, "Clinton Calls for 'Orderly Transition' in Egypt," The New York Times, January 30, 2011.
Mark Landler et al, "Diplomatic Scramble as Ally is Pushed to the Exit," The New York Times, February 1, 2011.
Mark Lander and Helene Cooper, "Allies Press U.S. to Go Slow on Egypt," The New York Times, February 8, 2011.
Syrian Protesters Call for Democracy, Security Forces Answer with Deadly Fire,” MSNBC.com, April 22, 2011.
"US Weighs Syria Sanctions amid Worsening Violence", MSNBC.com, April 25, 2011.
Nour Malas, "Nations Pursue U.N. Censure of Syria," The Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2011.
"McCain: No Military Solution to Syria Crisis," MSNBC.com, April 27, 2011.