How Mubarak decision divided the White House

Alan Philps explains why convincing the former Egyptian president to resign was one of the defining moments of Mr Obama's presidency

Barack Obama phoned the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, and advised him to announce he was stepping down. Reuters
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In February 2011, US president Barack Obama faced what his aides have described as one of the toughest decisions of his time in the White House: how to deal with the mass protests against the 30-year-rule of America’s closest ally in the Arab world, president Hosni Mubarak.

Mr Obama considers his handling of the Egyptian revolution as a success in avoiding a bloodbath among the thousands gathered in Tahrir Square chanting for the president to leave. For his critics, however, it is the defining moment where idealism triumphed over realpolitik in the Obama White House.

For US allies around the world, Mr Obama’s decision to hasten the departure of Mr Mubarak has raised doubts about the credibility of Washington as an ally, which linger to this day. These doubts have been cleverly exploited by Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Whatever the long-term effect of his intervention in the Syrian conflict, he can say he went to the aid of an old ally and turned the tide of battle.

The battle lines around the fall of Mr Mubarak are now clearly drawn thanks to two new documentaries. Inside Obama's White House, by producer Norma Percy, now being shown by the BBC in Britain, tells the story of the presidency in four long episodes through interviews with the key players.

On the events of February 2011, it is clear that the White House team was bitterly split on what to do. An aide to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton says that there was a clash of generations, with the more experienced voices – Mrs Clinton and Robert Gates, the defence secretary – pushing for a cautious approach and younger officials demanding that the president be forced to step down immediately.

Mr Gates says it was a “crazy idea” to force Mr Mubarak out, pointing – with some justification – to how this would be interpreted by US allies. “We have been his closest ally for 30 years. The message – if you just throw him under the bus – is a huge one throughout the entire region.”

The younger generation is represented by Ben Rhodes, a former speech writer serving as deputy national security adviser, who says showing support for the Egyptian leader would have been inconsistent with Mr Obama’s endorsement of democracy throughout the Middle East. “You don’t want to be caught on the wrong side of history,” Mr Rhodes says.

This is a phrase which clearly infuriated Mr Gates, a veteran who has served in security roles under eight US presidents, including George W Bush. He recalls late-night meetings with top US generals to discuss the White House’s “crazy idea”.

In a clip from a separate documentary, Rising Threats – Shrinking Military, made for Fox News and which is still to be released, Mr Gates gives a far harsher view of the White House split. He says the president ignored the "entire national security team" and took the advice of "three junior backbenchers" on how to treat the Egyptian president.

As for being on the right side of history, Mr Gates recalls saying: “Yeah, if we could just figure that out, we’d be a long way ahead.”

Mr Obama phoned the Egyptian president and advised him to announce he was stepping down and begin an orderly transition. But Mr Mubarak refused, saying he had a better understanding of the Middle East than Mr Obama. It was then that the White House opened a line of communication to urge the Egyptian military to take control in order to prevent chaos.

Mr Obama says in the BBC documentary that his aim was to prevent “tanks shooting into the crowds in Tahrir Square similar to what happened in Tiananmen Square” in Beijing in 1989. After Mr Mubarak stepped down, a jubilant Mr Obama announced: “The people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same.”

These words ring hollow today. If the fall of Mr Mubarak had led to peace and prosperity in Egypt and the end of crony capitalism, no one would care about those anguished arguments between the idealists and the realists in Washington.

But the result was an incompetent Muslim Brotherhood government which was not up to the task of running Egypt, particularly given the strength of institutional support for the old regime. Far from speaking with one voice, the people of Egypt have spoken with many voices, both yearning for revolutionary change and clinging to army-enforced stability.

With hindsight, and given what has happened in the rest of the Arab world, Mr Obama seems to have acted with an excess of idealism – which is not surprising given that he was first and foremost determined to rescue America’s reputation in the Middle East after the catastrophic Bush-era wars, not to cement US power.

No doubt if Mrs Clinton wins the Democratic nomination for president, her critics will charge her with nonchalantly handing over Egypt to the “terrorists” of the Muslim Brotherhood, who came to power in democratic elections after the fall of the old regime.

But if this charge is to stick, the critics need to say what they would have done differently. It was a volatile situation and after 30 years in power it was clearly time for some new blood at the top in Cairo. Even if Mr Obama had not gone public with a call for Mr Mubarak to step down, behind the scenes the US would still have had to engineer a transition which by its nature would have been unpredictable.

That does not change Mr Obama’s broader legacy in the Middle East – one of chaos from the Mediterranean to the borders of Iran. For all his idealism, Mr Obama came to the conclusion that there was not much America could do about the Arab world, resulting in a policy vacuum. His successor will surely dial down the “strategic patience” which has been a characteristic of the Obama White House and seek to put in place a policy for action.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter: @aphilps