Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Should they have known?

In a piece that can be found here, Michael Schwartz, a sociologist, argues that the Obama administration should have known that the Egyptian protests were likely to succeed in toppling Mubarak because they had the effect of a general strike that crippled the crucial tourism industry and then the rest of the economy, causing the Egyptian capitalist class to turn against the regime. Schwartz writes that Obama's handling of the crisis was incoherent and incompetent.

Schwartz's explanation of why the protests succeeded may be correct, but the criticism of Obama I think is unfair. It is very hard to predict the course of popular uprisings, even in a country whose economy is heavily dependent on one vulnerable industry. I think Marc Lynch's evaluation of the Obama administration's performance, which I quoted several days ago, is more accurate than Schwartz's. Among other things, Schwartz doesn't seem to realize that U.S. foreign policy is the product of a large bureaucratic apparatus and that it cannot be shifted easily; you can't easily change thirty years of foreign policy in 24 hours. Given that reality, the administration did just about as well as one might have expected (there were a couple of missteps and false notes, such as Biden's statement on the NewsHour that Mubarak isn't a dictator, but a few missteps in a situation of this complexity are to be expected). Schwartz's view that the Obama administration's performance in this period was abysmally bad is really rather bizarre.

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