Friday, February 11, 2011

Mubarak was wrong, and so were we

Posted By Peter Feaver Friday, February 11, 2011 - 2:30 PM Share

In an incredible 36 hours of developments, Hosni Mubarak managed to wrong-foot just about everyone, ultimately himself. First he was resigning, then he wasn't, then he did. It appears, after all, that there was a coup.

But as the events unfolded, almost everyone, including bloggers like me, managed to get it wrong:

The Intelligence community. The beleaguered IC was already reeling from White House criticism about failing to predict events unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt. (This criticism is a bit unfair since I bet there were some warnings -- given the volume of intelligence products and the way they are written, virtually everything has been predicted as "possible." Moreover, it is clear that those with vastly better intelligence and sources on Egypt than anything the IC ever could hope to amass, the Mubarak regime itself, were also surprised by the flow of events.) Then came the gaffe by Director of National Intelligence Clapper about the "largely secular" Muslim Brotherhood, a statement his staff was obliged to walk back later in the day. And the topper was CIA Director Panetta's admission that his forward-leaning prediction yesterday about Mubarak's departure was based not on intelligence analysis but on television reports. This is an almost textbook case of the CNN effect.

The White House. President Obama and his team clearly expected Mubarak to step down yesterday and gave every appearance of being flummoxed when he didn't. Now that he has, perhaps they will generate a ticktock account that shows a steely command marked by grace under pressure. Some of their most ardent supporters, however, already have spoiled that narrative -- witness Steve Clemons, "The mystique of America's superpower status has been shattered." His critique is surely exaggerated; has any other external power been more relevant to the crisis than the United States? Whoever is number two is a very, very distant number two. But the mystique of smart diplomacy might have taken a hit, and there are serious questions to be asked about the utility of Obama's soft power.

Bloggers and all the other rapid-response pundits. Including, of course, me. Blogging is to crises what radio play-by-play is to basketball. It is always a step or two behind, usually relating the obvious and (hopefully) never driving the outcome. It rather reminds me of the old joke from the national security policymaking world that many memos deserve to be classified, "Burn Before Reading."

Of course, in the end, the person most wrong-footed is Mubarak himself. He lost the chance to leave graciously. He is leaving, but it has much more the feel of the Oscar winner still talking into the microphone despite the orchestra drowning him out today than it would have even yesterday.

Of greater importance is the possibility that he wrong-footed his own successors. As I noted yesterday, the departure of Mubarak is actually the easiest part of mollifying the protesters. Their deeper demands for democratic reform, good governance, and greater economic opportunity for all are far more difficult to engineer. If the regime has this much trouble managing the easy part, what does this say about their prospects for managing the harder parts?

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