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Niall Ferguson Explains How Obama "Blew It" With Egypt

Niall Ferguson joins "Morning Joe" to discuss his recent Newsweek cover story.

Brzezinski: Yeah I want to hear more about how you think he blew it with Egypt, because looking at all the different reports coming in, and the pictures, and the peacefulness on the streets of Cairo, so far so good. It actually seems like it went pretty damn well.

Ferguson: Well you could be forgiven for thinking that, but it’s very early days and can I just remind you that the army is officially in charge of Egypt, which is not what one usually expects from a triumphant democratic revolution. The only thing that seems to not be getting pointed out is this completely took the administration by surprise. And I mean completely. They admitted that they had not planned for this scenario. I find that absolutely astonishing. This is a man who made a speech in June 2009 in Cairo, a speech which was distinctly touchy-feely, and since then nobody’s seemed to consider for five minutes in the State Department or in the White House that Mr. Mubarak would be overthrown. This was a scenario that was being considered in Israel last year, and I think a question has to be asked about why it wasn’t being considered by the National Security Council. What are these people paid to do?

Brzezinski: So you’re not talking about the actual execution of negotiations during the crisis. You’re talking about the lack of preparation and perhaps preemptive action.

Ferguson: Well I think the execution during the crisis was flip followed by flop followed by flip. I mean, how many times did the president’s position change? One minute he wanted Mubarak out, the next he wanted him to be part of an orderly transition. There were at least four different people saying four different things. In fact, I came to the conclusion that the United States had two foreign policies running concurrently. If it was Monday, it was Secretary Clinton’s. If it was Tuesday, it was back to President Obama’s. It was a shambles.

Brzezinski: But let me just challenge you on that. Niall, flip followed by flop followed by flip, to use your words, seems to have worked. Did it not?

Ferguson: It’s worked, has it? I wish I shared your confidence. Right now, we have a six-month period of military rule. Right now, we have, as far as I can see, virtually no organization on the part of secular Democrats. The only organized opposition force in Egyptian politics right now is the Muslim Brotherhood. Now if you look closely at what the Muslim Brotherhood stands for, it is for the imposition and enforcement of Shariah law and the restoration of the Caliphate. Anybody who counts this as a major breakthrough for United States foreign policy hasn’t got a clue about what happens in the wake of a revolution like this. It is far too early to say that this is a triumph. On the contrary, the risks are extremely high. Between now and the end of the year, the Muslim Brotherhood will get into power, and then we will be staring at something comparable, in its magnitude, to 1979 in Iran.

Brzezinski: I think you may be right. It may be far too early to say it’s a triumph. I also think though, Jonathan Capehart, that it might be far too early to say it’s a disaster too.

Capehart: Right, I think it’s far too early to say it’s a disaster. I think it’s far too early to say that the president had no strategy, and what I want to ask Niall is, you know, what would you have done if you were in that situation? Reading your piece, I got the distinct impression that you have this view that foreign policy, and this particular situation, is a very static event. Events are rolling all the time, so what would you have done differently than the president did?

Ferguson: Well there are two things. First of all, you have to have some kind of strategic concept. If the concept is the democratization of the Middle East, which of course was the last administration’s concept, then you have to prepare for that. If that’s not the concept, then you have to recognize that you are committed to non-Democratic regimes, not only in Egypt but also in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region. There was a failure to choose there. The second thing you have to do is you have to build scenarios. Mubarak was old and sick, and yet nobody seems to consider the possibility that there would not be an orderly transition to his son Gamal taking over. So you have to have a strategy, which means prioritizing, and you have to scenario build. And they did neither, which is why they had to make it up on the hoof, and frankly that’s not good enough. You cannot make the foreign policy of a superpower up as you go along.

Capehart: But Niall, so do you think that the Obama administration, the president, was overly sensitive to looking like it was intervening in foreign affairs in a sovereign country’s decisions?

Ferguson: No, they just looked like they hadn’t a clue. It’s as simple as that. Let me put it this way, if we want to see secular democratic forces prevail in a country like Egypt, which is overwhelmingly a Muslim country, which has a tradition of Islamic radicalism in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is not going to happen by itself. The lesson from Eastern Europe, going right back to the Cold War, is that the United States had to very actively support democratic forces until finally the moment came in 1989 when they could step forward into the limelight and they were ready. Just take the example of Czechoslovakia. Vaclav Havel comes into the foreground in 1989, but he had been receiving support from the United States and other western allies since 1977. We haven’t got a plan here, and if we don’t have a plan to build a secular democracy in Egypt, it’s not going to happen.

Halperin: Professor, do you see any foreign policy stars or big-thinkers in this administration, and if so who are they?

Ferguson: None, none. The national security advisers have been mediocrities. Right now we have a national security adviser whose biggest claim to faith is that he was a lobbyist for Fannie Mae. It’s embarrassing, and the previous incumbent, who’s responsible for this debacle, General Jim Jones, is I’m sure a very nice man. I’ve always had a good impression of him personally. But as a strategic thinker, he is a C minus and that is the problem. President Obama is one of the least experienced men in terms of foreign policy ever to occupy the White House. And yet he has advisers around him who are, frankly, second if not third-rate. And you just can’t do that. It’s far too risky, it’s far too dangerous a world, and some of us said this when he ran for election, that it was a huge risk to put somebody with that kind of inexperience into a position like Commander-in-Chief of the United States. I think what we’re seeing unfold in Egypt reveals the truth of that statement.

Halperin: Do you think Secretary Gates, Secretary Clinton are second or third-rate foreign policy strategists?

Ferguson: Well, to be perfectly honest, compared with the people that we’ve seen in the past, your guest tomorrow Zbigniew Brzezinski or his predecessor Henry Kissinger, yes I do not think they’re in that league.

Scarborough: So we have heard on this and off a recurring complaint about the Obama administration by foreign policy leaders over the past two years, and that is that there doesn’t seem to be a grand strategic plan. That the president believes he can go deliver a speech and that is not a means to an end, but that is an end in and of itself. Mika…

Brzezinski: Or that maybe there is a vision, but there’s a complete disconnect in carrying it out.

Scarborough: So I guess the question is, do you hear similar concerns and criticisms across the globe?

Ferguson: Yes I do. Last week I was in Tel Aviv at the Hertzeliyah Security Conference, and I have to tell you that the conversation at that conference was one of dismay about the complete amateurishness of American policy. I do think that the president regards making touchy-feely speeches as a substitute for having a strategy, and I want to emphasize the risks that are currently being run in that region. If you look at history, and remember I’m historian, most revolutions lead not to happy clappy democracies but to periods of internal turmoil, often to periods of terror, and they also lead to external aggression because the simplest way to mobilize people in a relatively poor and not very well educated country like Egypt is to point to the alleged enemy within and then, of course, the enemy abroad. The scenarios that the Israelis are looking at involve a transition not to some kind of peaceful and amicable democracy, but to a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated regime, which then pursues an aggressive policy towards Israel. This is not a zero probability scenario. This is a high probability scenario, and as far as I can see the president isn’t considering it.

Geist: Niall, it’s Willie Geist. It sounds like you would rate the Obama administration’s foreign policy as an F. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it sounds that way. Is it better or worse than that of the previous administration under George W. Bush?

Ferguson: Well I think it’s a little early to judge it, but it has the potential to be worse. Remember, Bush got a C if not an F from a great many people, not the least because the execution of the operation in Iraq was so very poor. And I think one has to look back and recognize the great mistakes that were made there. But at least George W. Bush, after 9/11, had a grand strategy. And the strategy was to use American power to promote democratization in the greater Middle East. And to fight a war on terror, which he fought with some success in Afghanistan and with mixed success in Iraq. But there was a strategic concept there, whereas as far as I can see President Obama’s strategic concept is, I’m not George W. Bush, love me.

Brzezinski: Next time you come on, Niall, tell us how you really feel.

Scarborough: Niall actually did wrap up the president’s foreign policy plan, at least on the campaign trail. So I’m wondering as you talk about George W. Bush’s grand strategy and as we bring up the president’s Cairo speech in 2009, is it not possible that both American presidents did have some influence over the events in Egypt over the past month?

Ferguson: Well I think Mr. Obama’s influence has been almost completely absent, whereas I think there’s no question that his predecessor had a great deal of influence in the region. Remember what was said in that Cairo speech incidentally, going back to 2009. Mr. Obama said that in his view, Islam was a religion of peace and tolerance. Well we’ll just see how peaceful and tolerant the Muslim Brotherhood is if it is successful in getting into power in the months ahead. I think those words will come back to haunt Mr. Obama.

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