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How Egypt shows what’s wrong with the U.S. government, and how to fix it

February 9, 2011

President Barack Obama talks on the phone with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in the Oval Office, Jan. 28, 2011. Vice President Joe Biden listens at left, and the President’s National Security team confer in the background. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.)

When the U.S. government responds to a crisis, the eyes of the world look to the moment the President appears before television to explain what the United States will do next. What the world does not see is the hundreds of diplomats, intelligence officers, staffers, troops, and officials working hard to make sure the response is right. They will collect information, pass it around, meet on it, and write memos and check boxes on those memos until a policy, hopefully, comes into shape.

They do this in a bureaucracy built over the last half-century, the foundations of its structure set by the National Security Act of 1947. Unfortunately, in the last couple of weeks, this structure has led to the United States being days behind the events on the ground in a situation that has moved astonishingly fast. And although it is easy to blame the current administration, the fact is they are working in an outmoded system.

In the first days of the demonstrations, Secretary Clinton remarked, “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” Vice President Biden asserted that President Mubarak was not a dictator. While protestors demanded that President Mubarak step down, the first time President Obama spoke it seemed he heard that the Egyptians would be happy with only promises of reforms.

As the demonstrations dragged on, the situation became more violent and the U.S. gave more reasons for the protestors – the future of Egypt – to distrust and even hate America. Yet, people reading their Twitter feeds or watching Al Jazeera English could see clearly that these demonstrations overturned a decades-old policy toward Egypt, and that the U.S. government’s responses did not match the magnitude of the crisis.

A crisis is a challenge to your strategy, in which you decide to stick to it or change it. In this case, officials had to reexamine assumptions held an entire career. For the United States, the National Security Council is where the center of this thinking is done. It is where the President gathers his National Security Advisor, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and other senior officials.

All these officials are extremely busy. They just finished a summit meeting with the Chinese. They worked hard on negotiating New START. They dealt with North Korea over the holidays. They have to reexamine assumptions held their entire careers on a policy that will have profound effects on the most challenging region in the world in a three-hour meeting.

A crisis does not appear from nowhere. It is years in the making. Preferably, years beforehand you would draw up scenarios and think through the decisions so that when it happens, you know what to look for, everyone knows the plays, and you can respond quickly. Although you can find contingency plans and scenarios in the Pentagon and other places, none of this is done where it matters – the center of making foreign policy: the NSC (although the Bush Administration had started this in its last years). Neither is this done in embassies, where the foreign policy first-responders are located.

What happens when you are blindsided? You scramble. You are paralyzed while waiting for the leadership to chart a course. In this situation, you waste valuable time and you are extremely vulnerable. A crisis that tests every strategic assumption forces leadership to micromanage the situation, because the agencies can’t respond using any available playbook. Yet, the U.S. allows this to happen repeatedly, putting its government personnel and civilians at risk. Yet, experts outside the U.S. government had been calling for a serious reexamination of policy toward Egypt for years.

The National Security Council did not have a serious meeting until a Saturday morning four days after the protests began. The next Monday, when an outside expert they brought in said, “Please tell me you have contingencies in case Mubarak’s regime collapses,” an NSC staffer admitted they did not. It was not until Tuesday, after Ambassador Frank Wisner’s meeting with Mubarak, that the Obama Administration had shifted its tone to demanding Mubarak to go and began to examine seriously the steps to manage a changeover in the Egyptian government.

The administration then ratified the New START treaty and held an ambassadors conference at the State Department.

Snowstorms blanket the East Coast.

The demonstrations start to ebb. The administration softens its tone. Wisner makes a statement supporting Mubarak from which the State Department frantically retracts.

Then the demonstrations flair up when a freed Egyptian Google executive gives a television interview. The U.S. strikes a forceful tone again.

The best thing a strategist can do is address the underlying issues early so the crisis does not erupt. This is perhaps the most difficult part of American policymaking. U.S. policy is determined by habit more than strategy. Only a few issues, at the top of the President’s agenda, can be well managed. Engagement with the Muslim world, which was a priority at the beginning, slipped behind in this administration to habit. It took the toppling of a government at the pillar of U.S. strategy in the Middle East to force real change.

What other issues are building to a crisis? Cybersecurity? Food security? What natural disaster will we face? What will be the BP oil spill of 2011? Can we afford to continue reacting the same way? The status quo will not do.

Here are three things that would change the way we play the game:

A serious strategy process that incorporates foresight tools, so leaders can think, plan, and act several steps ahead, beyond the daily inbox. Instead of crises that drag the government to and fro, the U.S. can make major policy decisions early.

Use empowered teams – mini-NSCs of area and functional experts with real decision-making authority devoted to a single issue 24/7, rather than layers of overworked and unfocused committees full of generalists that slow down decisions. Holbrooke led a team like this in the Kosovo War. He tried with Afghanistan, but the policy structure constrained him. Such teams would ensure the U.S. government speaks with one voice and acts with a clear goal.

Budget for the strategy rather than the tactics. The U.S. budgets for programs like the Human Rights and Democracy Fund, which provides grants to the National Endowment for Democracy, which builds democracy in Egypt. This program works on the ground with the military, the CIA, development projects, and diplomats who have to carry out their own technical programs decided in separate budgets. Funding for these programs all flow from some nebulous process in Washington at department headquarters.

Instead, why not create a team and place it in the middle of shaping and funding the technical programs?

These solutions are not difficult to implement if done gradually. Although not ideal, they could even be implemented one at a time. The important thing is to start now. The government has done the best with what it has, and it is not enough.

One Comment
  1. February 10, 2011 12:48 am

    Good commentary, anonymous PNSR person. Did I miss the author attribution? I tried to continue the conversation at

    Doug Orton

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