The Limited Influence Of The U.S. In Egypt's Upheaval

This edition of Political Junkie:

  • The Domino Theory in Egypt.
  • Democrats choose Charlotte for their 2012 convention.
  • Farewell to David Frye.
  • Announcing the new ScuttleButton winner.
  • This day in campaign history: Democrats pick Paul Kirk for DNC chair.

In chronicling an administration thought to be in peril, be it Bill Clinton's or George W. Bush's or Barack Obama's, anyone with some understanding of our political system has an opportunity to wager a guess on how it will all pan out. To be honest, in this country, there are not that many variables. The president serves a four-year term, with the possibility of a second term. He gets re-elected, or he doesn't. Of our last six presidents, three were elected to a second term and three were not. And voters always have the ability to make a correction in the midterm elections. But the choice of scenarios is quite limited.

Now try explaining what is going to happen in Egypt. Good luck with that.

Nasser button

hide captionEgyptian President Nasser, who died in 1970, was never OUR kind of autocrat.

Hosni Mubarak may be an autocrat with limited, and dwindling, popular support, but, as with the Shah decades ago in Iran or Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, he's our autocrat. He is a staunch ally in a region where allies are hard to find. Cairo has played a leading role in assisting American interests in the Mideast, especially in what has become known as the "war on terrorism." The wars in Iraq could not have been sustained without Egypt's help. It is not a surprise to learn that Egypt is, after Israel, the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid.

Mubarak has also stayed in power these past 30 years by outlawing his opposition and repressing his people. That is not news to Washington, which often picks its friends based on many factors that don't always have to do with human rights. And yet, just like that, a regime that seemed indestructible is now teetering on the edge and likely to fall. No one knows how to respond, least of all the Obama Administration, which has been giving, not surprisingly, mixed signals on what to do these past few days. It is not about to tell Mubarak that it's time to leave, and yet it has made it clear that the will of the people is paramount. Neither side in the conflict is encouraged by Washington's words or actions.

There is an irony that the U.S. can only stand aside and watch what is happening from afar. That was not supposed to happen after the 2008 elections in this country. One of the arguments of the Obama candidacy was that his victory would bolster America's image everywhere, especially in countries where anti-American sentiment was growing. Bush was the America-first "cowboy," went the argument, disrespected and dismissed by governments everywhere, while Obama better understood the reality of the world. With Obama as president, the world would suddenly begin to listen to America.

And yet in the wildfire of change that is enveloping the Mideast, Obama and the U.S. are seemingly powerless. To say that Washington wants to encourage forces of freedom ring hollow to those who watched as America stuck by Mubarak all these years, in the face of horror stories endured by his people. Mohamed ElBaradei, the diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize winner who has joined the Egyptian opposition, has been especially critical of Washington's role, saying the U.S. is "losing credibility by the day" for suggesting Mubarak could play a role in the country's transition to democracy.

So we wait. We wait to see what a post-Mubarak government might look like. Will the change result in democracy, as it was in the Philippines after Marcos fled? Or will it be a repeat of what followed after the overthrow of the Shah? Does Egypt become an Islamist state, another Iran? What role will the Muslim Brotherhood play in the next government? What's the next domino to fall? Yemen? Jordan? And what does this mean for Israel? Or the 1978 Camp David accords?

So many questions, and so few answers. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat spelled out the frustrations Monday morning:

We make deals with dictators, and reap the whirlwind of terrorism. We promote democracy, and watch Islamists gain power from Iraq to Palestine. We leap into humanitarian interventions, and get bloodied in Somalia. We stay out, and watch genocide engulf Rwanda. We intervene in Afghanistan and then depart, and watch the Taliban take over. We intervene in Afghanistan and stay, and end up trapped there, with no end in sight.

Sooner or later, the theories always fail. The world is too complicated for them, and too tragic. History has its upward arcs, but most crises require weighing unknowns against unknowns, and choosing between competing evils.

The only comfort, as we watch Egyptians struggle for their country's future, is that some choices aren't America's to make.

There's no conclusion in this posting. I'm just sitting here, watching in fascination, with some trepidation, without any inkling of what the landscape is going to look like.

Sweet Charlotte. The Democrats have decided to hold their 2012 presidential nominating convention in Charlotte, N.C. North Carolina was a surprise pickup for Obama in 2008, only the second time since the LBJ landslide that the Tar Heel State went for a Democrat for president. That year the Dems also knocked off GOP Sen. Elizabeth Dole and retained the governorship.

In announcing the choice today (Tuesday), First Lady Michelle Obama said Charlotte is a "city marked by its Southern charm, warm hospitality, and an 'up by the bootstraps' mentality that has propelled the city forward as one of the fastest-growing in the South."

The convention begins on Labor Day, Sept. 3, 2012. Republicans will hold their convention a week earlier, in Tampa.

Charlotte beat out Cleveland, Minneapolis and St. Louis for the honor. Writing in the St. Louis Business Journal, Kelsey Volkmann concludes that Obama and his political advisers "are focusing re-election efforts on North Carolina rather than Missouri," a state the Dems lost last time out.

From the Mailbag. Here's a note from Patricia Ponder of St. Augustine, Fla., a podcast fan who nonetheless has a criticism ... and it's one I find much to agree with. I'm reprinting it in its entirety:

I am a devoted It's All Politics listener and enjoy everything about the show. BUT...Lately it seems like all the talk is of the 2012 election. I listen to hear your discussion of issues before Congress, as well as the behind-the-scenes machinations of how things get done, and what's going on in the rest of the country that has some national bearing. And yes, of course, I want to know how things today will affect the 2012 election. But to view everything that happens through the prism of the next election is to ignore a lot.

In the buildup to the midterm elections, it seemed reasonable to only talk about what might happen in the midterm elections. After the midterm elections, it seemed reasonable to only talk about who won and lost and why and the effect of these contests going forward.

But to move seamlessly from there into the 2012 election cycle renders elections meaningless. By always focusing on the next election, everyone in office becomes a lame duck — even if they just won.

Again, I am a fan and I do want to hear about who the Republicans might run in 2012 and how he or she stacks up against Obama. But I also want to hear about legislation in Washington and the states, who Obama's picking to replace staff members that left, what they served at the state dinner (kidding), and much more.

Thanks for such a great podcast.

David Frye button

Making This Perfectly Clear. It's difficult to turn on the TV and miss someone lampooning the president. But that was not always the case in the 1960s and '70s, when political satire was not as common as it is today. One of the earliest to practice this craft was David Frye, whose impressions of Lyndon Johnson and especially Richard Nixon made him a popular late-night talk-show guest, especially on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," as well as on the "Smothers Brothers Comedy House."

Frye's work might appear tame by today's standards. But he was all the rage back then. In 1969, he produced a much sought after comedy album, "I Am the President," spoofing Nixon.

Frye died on Jan. 24 at the age of 76. Here's part of a comedy bit Frye did on a Smothers Brothers show in 1967. His impersonations of William F. Buckley come at 3:53 in, Nixon at 5:10, and Bobby Kennedy at 5:38.

Wayne Grisham. Grisham, a California Republican who served two terms in the House, died Jan. 19. He was elected to an open seat in 1978 from the Whittier area and re-elected overwhelmingly two years later. But Democrats, in charge of the 1982 redistricting, merged Grisham's CD with that of fellow Republican David Dreier. Dreier, a much younger and more energetic campaigner, easily won the primary. Dreier still serves and in fact is the chairman of the House Rules Committee.

And here's one belated obit. My post of Dec. 29 listed those in the political world who died in 2010. The Jan. 21 column had those I missed. And here's one more:

Mike Gauldin, 55, the press secretary for Bill Clinton during his days as governor of Arkansas, who worked in the Energy and later the Interior Departments in the Clinton White House (July 22).

Trivia. Here was last week's trivia question during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation:

Virginia Republican George Allen says he wants to regain the Senate seat he lost to Jim Webb in 2006. Who was the last person to lose a Senate race but win the rematch against the same opponent six years later? (Answer below.)

ScuttleButton Puzzle Answer. ScuttleButton, as many loyal Americans know, is my weekly puzzle in which I put forward a vertical display of buttons and your job is to take one word (or concept) per button, add 'em up, and, hopefully, you will arrive at a famous name or expression. Here are the buttons used in Friday's ScuttleButton contest:

Sexon State Representative — I've used this item once before in ScuttleButton (see July 2, 2009 puzzle), but I still don't know who the candidate is.

D.C. Last Colony — Button, probably from the early 1970s, bemoaning lack of home rule in the District of Columbia.

I (heart) Mr. T — Star of TV's "The A Team" from the 1980s.

And so, when you add Sexon + D.C. + T, you might end up with ...

Sex and the City. An awful HBO series made into two awful movies. Or so they tell me. (Deirdre Carroll of Seattle, Wash., is convinced I know too much about the show to pretend otherwise. Not true, Deirdre!)

Anyway, this week's winner, chosen completely at random, is (drum roll) ... Debbie Ciardo of Rockville, Md.

Trivia answer: Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, in 2008. She lost to John Sununu (R) six years earlier. (Best part: The person who called into the show with the correct answer was Stefany Shaheen, the senator's daughter!)

Paul Kirk DNC button

This Day In Campaign History: The Democratic National Committee elects Paul Kirk, a Washington, D.C., attorney, as the party's national chairman. Kirk, a former top aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), defeats former North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford for the post. Two other candidates, former DNC executive director Robert Keefe and former California state Democratic chair Nancy Pelosi, had earlier dropped out and endorsed Sanford. Kirk, who replaces Charles Manatt of California, promises to remain neutral in the 1988 presidential campaign, even if Kennedy decides to run (Feb. 1, 1985). Kirk will later be appointed to temporarily fill Kennedy's Senate seat in 2009.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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