While this is somewhat off the subject of development and global change (well, I suppose revolution in a country as pivotal as Egypt could count as the latter), I feel a need to chime in with an opinion on the role of the Obama administration and recent events in Egypt.  It’s been noted all over the place that the administration has seemed behind the curve and ineffectual throughout the entire Egyptian revolution.  This, of course, is based on public statements that seriously hedged the American position and clearly responded/reacted to events on the ground as they developed – the result, was a series of statements that shifted rather dramatically from weak support for Mubarak to stronger and stronger support for his removal.

I’d like to offer a few thoughts here – and they are just thoughts.  I have no special sources or insights here, except as someone who works in the international realm and within the government and therefore has some familiarity with how things really get done.  I am not, however, suggesting that the following is in any way to be seen as me reporting on things that I know to have happened behind the scenes – simply put, my security clearance doesn’t go that high, even if I wanted to know.

Simply put, I don’t think the administration was as out of the loop and reactive as people think.  I’ve found it surprising that most who have noted the very close ties between the US and Egyptian militaries have largely limited discussion to noting that the Egyptians are armed largely with American weapons.  Oddly, nobody has really been talking about the information black hole that developed around the Pentagon over the past three weeks – they stopped talking, almost entirely.  That is unusual.  Further, it is clear that the Egyptian military wavered at least once during this revolution, and looked like it might throw in with the Mubarak regime, at least until the next election.  Yet they did not tip over – and surely part of this is because the military is drawn from a broad segment of Egyptian society, and was therefore very, very unlikely to fire on its own citizenry.  But does anyone think that the Pentagon wasn’t working full time behind the scenes through every communications channel it had to the Egyptian military?  In the end, the United States arms and offers training to the Egyptians, which gives us enormous formal and informal clout with their military.  Does anyone really think that, after the first few days of the revolution, the Pentagon wasn’t delivering the message that Mubarak had to go?  Did we have any other lever of change after the first few days?  The answer to all of the above, for me, is no.  We had no diplomatic lever to effect any change in Egypt after the first few days, once Mubarak turned defiant and started using the “foreign meddling” theme as a means of self-defense.  This is not Secretary Clinton’s fault – I’ve been deeply impressed with her work relative to more or less everyone who has occupied her seat over the past 10-15 years.  She just had no levers or influence once the diplomatic tide turned.  But our military always had pull . . . and I am certain that the administration knew this and used this, calibrating its public statements to stay off the toes of the informal, unacknowledged communications that were going on between the Pentagon and Egypt’s military leadership.  This is pragmatism at its finest – it doesn’t matter how it gets done, or who gets the credit, but I strongly believe that the Obama administration played this one about as well as it could, and was probably a lot more effective than most folks realize.

Someone will write a history of this 20 years from now, when the FOI requests are easier to fulfill, and we will have a much better sense of what really happened. I suspect the account will be kinder to the administration than much contemporary writing . . .