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Foreign Policy

On Their Side

A late convert to the freedom agenda, President Obama has enlisted a democracy crew to help shape Egypt’s future.


Jubilant: Egyptians celebrate Hosni Mubarak’s departure.(PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images)

Well before he became president, as he thrust him­self into the nat­ional con­scious­ness, Barack Obama would often hark back to his boyhood in Indonesia.

In his speeches, Obama would make fun of other senators (read: John McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton) who embarked on the typical overseas “fact-finding missions,” usually traveling around by helicopter. Those trips don’t tell you much, then-candidate Obama would say. Instead, one had to understand the “child looking up at the helicopter” who “must see America and feel hope.” He had been such a child, Obama said, after he and his American mother moved to Indonesia in 1967 when he was 6.


Obama would recount to aides such as Ben Rhodes, then a key speechwriter and now deputy national security adviser, how Indonesians’ lives were prey to the arbitrary whims of the military—in which his stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, had served as an officer. In Obama’s view, the key to making democracy stick, Rhodes concluded, “was not just elections but the rule of law. The building of institutions.” Indonesia’s modern history, Rhodes said then, was a constant “touchstone” for Obama.

Now, the president is invoking his Indonesia experience once again—as his preferred model for Egypt after Hosni Mubarak. Ever since the early days of the Egyptian crisis, when Obama “crashed” a high-level January 28 meeting in the White House chaired by National Security Adviser Tom Donilon to insist that his administration support the protesters, “the president believed that the most analogous situation was Indonesia,” a senior administration official said. Obama has convened a kind of democracy crew within the White House—an impressive group of scholars who are trying to assist the transition in Egypt and other nations that might come along in a part of the world that has remained stubbornly resistant to the “freedom agenda” until now.

In Indonesia, in the wake of the Asian financial crisis, a 1998 upheaval overturned a 30-year autocracy led by President Suharto, and elections followed. The military deferred to the civilians, and in the world’s largest Muslim country Islamist politicians were eventually marginalized (winning at most 7 percent of the vote). Obama, according to top aides, believes that Egypt must similarly make the correct choices on establishing an electoral system to avoid the pitfalls that send so many other new democracies back into chaos, tyranny, or civil war.


This week, Obama planned to call Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former army general, to ask him to offer advice to the Egyptian military on the democratic transition, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told National Journal.

This all puts Obama in a strange place. Much as President George W. Bush once shunned “nation-building,” only to find himself thrust into that task in Afghanistan and Iraq after September 11, the 44th president had mostly avoided democracy-promotion in his first two years in office. It was, after all, a policy that left a bad taste in much of the world, largely because of the Iraq war. But now, as the Middle East continues to erupt—with growing protests in Bahrain, Iran, Yemen, and other countries—Egyptian democracy is barely off the ground and may already be heading in a direction that is not necessarily in accord with U.S. interests. Obama does not have the option of looking away.

This week, the Egyptian junta, the Supreme Military Council, appointed a panel of jurists that included an outspoken member of the Muslim Brotherhood and announced that elections will take place in six months—far too soon, some experts say, for an outcome that will fairly represent the broad array of political opinion that manifested itself during the protests. As a result, the Obama team knows that the next few months will be at least as critical as the few weeks that just passed—perhaps more so.


Ever since Mubarak resigned on February 11, the administration hasn’t said a great deal in public. After being drawn—somewhat reluctantly—into the center of the Egyptian crisis in recent weeks, the administration is now trying to revert to a very low profile to avoid accusations of interference.


But in truth, the United States is more deeply involved than ever. “There’s still a lot of work to be done in Egypt,” Obama told reporters at a news conference on Tuesday. “Egypt is going to require help in building democratic institutions.” At the White House, the working group on democratic transition is overseen by Michael McFaul, a senior director of the National Security Council and a former Stanford scholar who has long studied democratic transitions. He is working with other political scientists in the administration, such as Jeremy Weinstein, the NSC’s director for democracy, and Matthew Spence, Donilon’s executive secretary, who has a Ph.D. from Oxford and has written about U.S. assistance to democratic transitions. Also heavily involved are the NSC’s Dennis Ross, Dan Shapiro, and Samantha Power. 

This article appears in the February 19, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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