President Barack Obama's comeback since the November elections has been very impressive professionally, if not always politically. What has not been at all impressive is how far behind the curve his administration has been on Egypt, a distressing development over the past few weeks that reached a nadir of sorts on Thursday with an epic level of confusion.
There are clear limits to American power. The failure of neoconservative adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan make that obvious. But there should not be many limits to American knowledge. Especially given the limits to American power.
Speaking Friday afternoon, after delaying his remarks for 90 minutes, Obama hailed the victory of the Egyptian protesters, saying: "There are very few moments in our lives where we have the privilege to witness history taking place. This is one of those moments. This is one of those times. The people in Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same.''
Longtime Egyptian spymaster Omar Suleiman announced the departure of President Hosni Mubarak, saying the country will be run by the military.
But for all Obama's trademark rhetorical finery, deposing Hosni Mubarak may have been the simplest and most obvious move in the Egyptian Revolution. For, as the man who actually announced the change, veteran Egyptian spymaster Omar Suleiman, put it: "President Hosni Mubarak has decided to relinquish the office of the presidency and has instructed the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to take over the affairs of the country."
The real power games have only just begun. And, this administration -- stunningly, given Obama's choice of Cairo for his great address to the Muslim world in 2009 -- has been behind the curve repeatedly throughout the crisis thus far.
In the four weeks since Tunisia overthrew its president, the Obama administration has gone from solidly supporting Hosni Mubarak, to suggesting he depart, only to back him again until the fall, then reverse not long after when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, declaring Egypt to be "stable" announced U.S. backing for Egypt's longtime spy chief and master of "renditions," Omar Suleiman.
There it sat with protests continuing and growing all the while, with widespread strikes spreading as the movement for political reform turned to a movement for economic justice. Anger about pervasive poverty coupled with rage over reports of the Mubarak family's billions in ill-gotten gains. On Thursday, it became apparent that the administration really didn't know what was going on.
President Barack Obama spoke Friday afternoon about the momentous change in Egypt, so far.
In Washington, as fate would have it, Thursday was the day of the annual Threat Assessment Hearings of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. CIA Director Leon Panetta said that he thought Mubarak was leaving office that day.
On Air Force One on his flight to Michigan to tout a new national wireless initiative, Obama watched events unfold on television.
Pool reports from a gaggle with White House press secretary Robert Gibbs give a sense of the lack of clarity in the infosphere around the president.
"I am watching much of what you're watching. We're watching I think a very fluid situation. What we're looking for and what the president spoke about many days ago remains our priority: an orderly transition to a free and fair election. What we're looking for remains unchanged."
Gibbs would not comment on Leon Panetta's comments on whether Mubarak is stepping down. "I don't know what question elicited what testimony so I want to, without having seen that I think that would be tough for me to come at," he said.
Later Gibbs said that, "We are in contact with our embassy obviously in Cairo. We are watching the reports that you are. I don't know what the outcome of what is happening today will be." Asked if Vice President Suleiman would indeed take control, Gibbs said he was "not going to get in over the tips of my skis on this one." "I will endeavor to get us the best information throughout the day. But I don't want to get into a series of hypotheticals," he said.
On Thursday, Hosni Mubarak stunned the Obama Administration with his announcement that he would not step down. The Egyptian people took care of that with more massive demonstrations on Friday.
How on earth did the Obama administration get caught so far behind the curve on Egypt in the first place?
Obama had a string of major successes in the lame duck Congress and delivered an elegant, moving speech in the wake of the Tucson tragedy that reminded people of why they liked him so much following his great keynote address at the 2004 Democratic national convention. His State of the Union address was, as expected, quite successful. And his Republican opponents for the 2012 presidential race are, not to put too fine a point on it, unimpressive.
Then came Tunisia, and Egypt. Obama had gotten his job approval up in the Gallup Poll into the 50s; now it's back in the 40s.
It was clear to many after the uprising in Tunisia that tectonic plates were beginning to shift in the Arab world, with people stirring against poverty, inflation, corruption, and decades of authoritarian rule.
But the Obama administration was caught flat-footed by the uprising in Egypt, which is merely America's longest standing ally in the Arab world and the site of Obama's landmark address to the Islamic world in 2009.
President Hosni Mubarak's only plan for succession to his regime was his son. Which was not flying even before the uprising, with the Egyptian military, the most admired and stable institution in the country, frowning mightily on the notion. Egyptian political culture was deracinated by autocratic design, with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood the only coherent non-Mubarak political force in the country.
The calls for regime change in Egypt grew this week despite half-hearted promises of reform from Mubarak and longtime Egyptian intelligence chief-turned-Vice President Omar Suleiman.
On January 20th, in an Arab League summit in Egypt largely overlooked on account of the Tunisia story, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, the former Egyptian foreign minister, warned that the Middle East is being "broken" by declining economic conditions for the vast majority of the populace which is low and no income. Tunisia, he said, was the indicator of a vast and growing discontent in the Middle East.
But just a few days later, the State Department's sub-cabinet official for the region said that the revolt in Tunisia was unique to Tunisia, and not applicable to Egypt. In reality, Tunisia-style protests had spread not only to Egypt but also to Yemen and Jordan.
On January 27th, NewsHour host Jim Lehrer asked Vice President Joe Biden if the time has "come for President Mubarak of Egypt to go?" Biden answered: "No. I think the time has come for President Mubarak to begin to move in the direction that -- to be more responsive to some... of the needs of the people out there."
Asked if he would characterize Mubarak as a dictator, Biden responded: "Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he's been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with -- with Israel... I would not refer to him as a dictator."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had weighed in just before that, calling Mubarak's regime stable. "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,"
Then on February 5th, at the annual Munich Security Conference, Clinton denigrated the protest movement and placed the administration firmly behind Suleiman.Said Clinton, just six days ago:
"There are forces at work in any society, particularly one that is facing these kind of challenges, that will try to derail or overtake the process to pursue their own agenda, which is why I think it's important to follow the transition process announced by the Egyptian government, actually headed by vice-president Omar Suleiman."
Well, that certainly looks wildly off-base, doesn't it?
A new day has dawned in which America, while still the most powerful country in the world, cannot dictate events. But it cannot continue to even influence critical events, for good or ill, if it's going to be so embarrassingly wrong in its assessments of them.
You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes.