The Obama administration has said that its foreign policy ideas defy traditional categorization and ideologies.
"Obama has emphasized bureaucratic efficiency over ideology, and approached foreign policy as if it were case law, deciding his response to every threat or crisis on his own merits," Ryan Lizza writes in the May 2 edition of The New Yorker. "[The president recently said on NBC News that] 'when you start applying blanket policies on the complexities of the current world situation, you're going to get yourself in trouble.' "
On today's Fresh Air, Lizza details President Obama's response to the ongoing uprisings in the Middle East and explains why the president's actions — in Egypt and then in Libya — say a great deal about the administration's foreign policy strategy.
Lizza also describes what he says are clashing ideologies and divisions that exist within the Obama administration between two camps: the "realists," who view foreign policy in terms of an end game; and the "idealists," who focus on issues like human rights and democracy.
Those two camps recently disagreed, he says, on whether to intervene in Libya. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, described by Lizza as a "consistent realist," opposed any intervention in Libya because he did not think intervening was "in the vital interest of the United States."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, pushed for an intervention, Lizza says, making a powerful case that "even though Libya was not in our vital interest, [the U.S.] had a responsibility to protect the citizens of Benghazi."
With Libya, says Lizza, the Obama administration decided to intervene — but only after emphasizing the fact that other Arab states, specifically the Arab League, also called for interventions in Libya. In March, the administration quietly took measures to broaden a French and British U.N. proposal asking for a no-fly zone over Libya into permission for full-scale military intervention — without making it appear like the United States was pulling any strings, Lizza says.
"They were very quiet about [their role]," says Lizza. "And there was a lot of criticism from the right [saying], 'Oh. The French. How can we let the French be leading on this?' and I think, to some of Obama's advisers, that's not the worst thing in the world. Their view is that they inherited a United States that was economically weaker and [militarily] dragged down by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and that burden-sharing was something that they should look forward to and not something that in some way demeans the United States."
On criticism about the phrase "leading from behind," used by an Obama administration official to describe the president's actions in Libya
"I do think it crystallizes the different ways that Republicans and Democrats view foreign policy. A lot of Republicans believe that worrying about backlash and resentment with how the U.S. acts in the world is overrated, and that's not really a problem. The Obama administration takes it very seriously. ... [The phrase] really gets at something very central to the ways the two parties view foreign policy."
On the disagreement by Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defense Gates over Libya
"Gates, as he said publicly, simply believed that Libya was not in the vital interest of the United States, and if it's not in the vital interest, then you have the question of, 'Well, we have a humanitarian crisis on our hands' — the crisis being [leader Moammar] Gadhafi's forces were on the outskirts of Benghazi and Gadhafi and his sons were publicly saying that they were going to go house to house to find these rebels. So you had a pretty convincing case that an imminent massacre was going to take place. And if you're Bob Gates, the world is a very ugly place where lots of bad things happen and it's not the United States' job to intervene every time something like that happens even if we can. Clinton comes out of a very different tradition. One of the things that the Bill Clinton White House was known for was its development of a policy of humanitarian intervention, and I think one of the things that both Clintons are tormented by are the cases where they didn't intervene — specifically Rwanda. This is something in Hillary Clinton's blood and she, as did other people in the Obama administration, made a powerful case that even though Libya was not in our vital interest — Libya is not Saudi Arabia, for instance — we had a responsibility to protect the citizens of Benghazi essentially."
On traveling with Secretary Clinton to Egypt where members of a youth revolutionary group boycotted her meeting
"Very early on in the protests, she made a statement that the [Hosni] Mubarak regime is stable. Now objectively, it wasn't an incorrect statement — the Mubarak regime was stable. But the protesters had this burned into their memories as 'Hillary Clinton supporting the Mubarak regime.' " And that was the reason they cited most often to me for boycotting her meeting. I was meeting with these guys at the same time she was meeting with other members with civil society. So she was upstairs and these guys were downstairs meeting with me and a couple of other reporters. She was really realistic about it. She pointed out that she was involved with protest movements when she was younger. She talked about her work with the Vietnam War and how in every revolution, there are people who take absolutist positions and boycott this or that meeting. She didn't really seem too bothered about it, to be honest. And she very pointedly said, 'Ryan, the people who start revolutions are not necessarily the same people who go on to run the country.' Her takeaway was she was very worried about what was going on in terms of the transition in Cairo because there's no recent history of political engagement, of party building, and the people she met with, she found disorganized and not quite ready for the elections that were coming. And she was very worried about that, particularly because the one group that is organized is the Muslim Brotherhood."
On changes in Obama's foreign policy in the next two years
"I do think Obama himself has reached a point in his presidency where his early tilt toward a realist foreign policy has reached the limits of its success; in other words, I think there was something that made sense about a very realist foreign policy in the first year or two given the state of the world, given the economic situation of the United States — that the first two years had to be about rebuilding our economy, rebuilding our reputation, rebuilding our strength in the world. Because no country that is weak can spread its ideals. So if you're an idealist, what you wanted in those first two years was to rebuild all of those things, and I think that required a certain amount of realism. The hinge of the story of his first term will be the uprising in the Middle East that will allow our foreign policy, to allow our interests and our values to align in a region where they have not been aligned for a very long time."
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Ryan Lizza has an article in the current edition of the New Yorker about how the uprisings in North Africa have remade President Obama's foreign policy.
The article examines the disagreements between the State Department, Defense Department and the White House and the conflicting priorities of the so-called idealists and realists within the administration.
Last month, Lizza traveled with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Cairo and Tunisia. He's a Washington correspondent for the New Yorker and profiled Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.
Ryan Lizza, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I want to start with the very end of your article. Your article ends by quoting an advisor to Obama, describing President Obama's leadership style as leading from behind. This phrase has really been reverberating on the Internet in ways that you maybe didn't expect.
Mr. RYAN LIZZA (Washington Correspondent, The New Yorker Magazine): Yes.
GROSS: So what did you - what did that advisor mean by that phrase? How did you interpret it - leading from behind - when you published it?
Mr. LIZZA: The way that the president approached Libya is a great example of what his advisor described as leading from behind. Since the end of the Cold War, one of the fundamental facts about international relations has been a growing backlash against the biggest actor in the world, and that is the United States.
And that really peaked in the Bush era, and so when Obama and his team came into office, this was something that they were acutely aware of, that the U.S. had to operate in the world in a way that didn't foment, backlash, and especially, of all places, in the Middle East.
And so when they approached what to do about Libya, when they approached the question of could and should the United States intervene militarily in another Muslim country, how could we do it without it seeming like Iraq, or like any of the other places in the Middle East where our presence is hurting our reputation?
And that's where leading from behind comes in. It's actually - I've learned this subsequently, through the beauty of the Internet, that another person, another leader who's used the term leading from behind is Nelson Mandela.
A lot of people on the right have interpreted this as not leading. And I don't think that that's what this advisor meant by it, and I certainly don't think that's what Obama did in the case of Libya. What it means is getting other actors out front, not stamping the intervention in Libya with the American brand.
GROSS: So give us an example from the Obama administration's approach to taking action in Libya, something that exemplifies leading from behind.
Mr. LIZZA: Well, I would say: One, making sure - really highlighting and emphasizing the fact that Arab states were calling for interventions, specifically the Arab League.
But if you look at what the Arab League and other Arab states were asking for, is they were asking for a no-fly zone. If you look closely at what the United States pushed for, it was not a no-fly zone. The Obama administration determined that a no-fly zone would be useless. Simply preventing Gadhafi's airplanes from being in the air would do nothing to save Benghazi.
And what they actually did is they went to the U.N. and they took a resolution that was being proposed by the U.K. and the French, and they said this won't do it. We need a resolution that gives us all necessary means - U.N. language for any military force that's required - to save Benghazi.
So they moved - you know, to put it one way, they moved the entire debate in a more interventionist, more militaristic direction. And yet at the same time, they didn't really highlight that. I mean, they were really quiet about it. A lot of accounts in the press barely pointed this out.
And, you know, I think a lot of Americans are used to the president making a big, splashy announcement at the White House when we do something like this, and they determined - they did it in an a sort of stealth, quiet way, emphasizing Arab leadership, Arab requests, multilateralism, all the rest.
GROSS: Arab League support.
Mr. LIZZA: Arab League support. And frankly, there was a lot of criticism from the right that, oh, the French, how could we let the French be leading on this? And I think to some of Obama's advisors, that's not the worst thing in the world.
Their view is that they inherited a United States that was economically weaker, militarily dragged down by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that burden-sharing was something that they should look forward to and not something that, in some way, demeans the United States.
And I think that's what you're seeing in this debate since that quote has become public. There's a lot of people on the right who feel like leading from behind is not leading.
GROSS: Yes, well, let me just read a quote that exemplifies this, and this is a quote from John Podhoretz in the conservative political publication Commentary. He writes: The crystallizing phrase leading from behind may not be something you'll see on a sign at the 2012 Democratic convention, but it will almost certainly be in the acceptance speech of the nominee of the Republican Party at its 2012 convention, and will be through in Obama's face during the presidential debates by his GOP rival and will be the centerpiece of the critique of Obamaism going forward.
It's so revealing, in fact, that I wouldn't be surprised if the White House goes on a hunt to find the person who said it in order to defenestrate him before he does more colossal damage to his boss' chances of reelection. Leading from behind - oh, boy.
So that's the quote.
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Mr. LIZZA: That's a quote, and that's been a common reaction of a lot of conservatives. And I do think it's very - it does crystallize the different ways that Republicans and Democrats view foreign policy.
And a lot of Republicans believe that the United States - that worrying about backlash and worrying about resentment of how the U.S. acts in the world, that's overrated, and that's not really a problem. The Obama administration takes it very seriously.
So I did - I think I knew that that quote was going to cause a bit of a fuss, because it really gets at something very central to the way that the two parties view foreign policy.
GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Ryan Lizza, and he's the Washington correspondent for the New Yorker. We're talking about his new article in the New Yorker "The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring Remade Obama's Foreign Policy."
So let's continue with Libya, here. You say Libya's the first major issue that Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, and Robert Gates, secretary of defense, disagreed. What was their disagreement about?
Mr. LIZZA: Well, Gates, as he said publicly, that Libya was not in the vital interest of the United States. And if it's not in the vital interest, then you have the question of: Well, you have a humanitarian crisis on our hands, the crisis being that Gadhafi's forces were on the outskirts of Benghazi, and Gadhafi and his sons were publicly saying that they were going to go house to house to find these rebels.
So you had a pretty convincing case that there was a - that an imminent massacre was going to take place. And if you're Bob Gates, you know, the world is a very ugly place, where lots of bad things happen, and it's not the United States' job to intervene every time something like that happens, even if we can.
Clinton comes out of a very different tradition. One of the things that the Bill Clinton White House was known for was its development of a policy of humanitarian intervention, and I think one of the things that both Clintons are extremely tormented by are the cases where they didn't intervene, specifically Rwanda.
Anyway, this is something, I think, something for - in sort of - in Clinton - in Hillary Clinton's blood, and she - as did other people in the Obama administration - made a powerful case that even though Libya was not in our vital interest, even though Libya is not, you know, Saudi Arabia, for instance, or a place where we have deep ties or economic interests, we had a responsibility to protect the citizens of Benghazi, essentially.
And that, you know, that was the - as clear-cut a case as you can get between idealists and realists, although I will say this: There was another argument that was made by Clinton and others and like-minded officials, and that is what's going on in the wider Middle East, this uprising - this, you know, this democratic uprising - is impacted by how the United States acts in every country.
And it's important for the United States to be standing with this democratic movement, and that by siding with the rebels and even intervening militarily, that sent a message to other countries on whose side we were in this broader battle that's going on. And that is, indeed, in our interests.
GROSS: Now, the U.N. resolution that you referred to earlier is the first time that the U.N. authorized military action to preempt an imminent massacre. Would you say that Hillary Clinton won this debate over Robert Gates in terms of what to do in Libya?
Mr. LIZZA: I do. Although I think as I reported this out, I think that the - you know, it's much less a - which Hillary Clinton pushed anyone into this, but that Barack Obama made this decision, and that, you know, the crucial player here is not any single member of his Cabinet, but is the president himself. Because it was the president who was presented with - essentially, there was a very important meeting where he got an intelligence briefing about the situation on the ground in Libya.
And at that point, he was told that Gadhafi's troops were about to take a city not far from Benghazi. And as soon as they took that city, they would be able to cut off the fuel and water to Benghazi, and that Benghazi being the sort of home, the sort of capital of the rebellion, that everything - the whole, you know, the whole situation would be over within 48 hours. And what he would do in Benghazi did not - you know, wasn't going to be pretty.
And so the president asked: Well, okay, the solution to this problem that's on the table at the U.N. right now is a no-fly zone. Is that going to stop the situation that you guys just outlined to me? And he was told no. It wouldn't do anything.
GROSS: In part because Gadhafi was using tanks, not - more than planes.
Mr. LIZZA: He was using tanks. And Gadhafi was watching the international debate, right. He was watching the world debate a no-fly zone. So he wasn't using planes anymore because he realized at any minute, the U.N. could decide to bomb his air defenses and take out his planes.
You know, so no-fly zones simply became a moot point as he closed in on Benghazi. So the important actor really is President Obama. It's President Obama saying we need a solution that'll actually deal with how the situation on the ground has changed.
GROSS: And what was the new resolution?
Mr. LIZZA: The new resolution authorized all necessary means, which is U.N. language for do whatever it takes to protect the citizens. This was so surprising - this is where we get back to the leading from behind.
So there was this 48-hour period before the U.N. resolution gets - the new U.S. version of this resolution gets proposed, where the French and the British were just scratching their heads, wondering what is going on in this White House. Where is this president?
Hillary Clinton, I was with her in Paris, and she had meetings with Sarkozy. She had meetings with representatives of the rebels, from Libya. And they left these meetings, and both - you know, both Sarkozy and the rebels were pushing for this U.N. resolution. And she didn't have an official U.S. position yet. The White House was still divided on this issue.
So the whole world was, at this moment, Terry, was sort of waiting for what the United States was going to decide on this issue. And finally, the decision is made, and they go to the U.N., and instead of supporting what's on the table, they expand the resolution greatly.
So the French and the British were so shocked by this, that they actually - one of the French diplomats told me that they thought it was a trick. They thought that the United States wasn't serious about this, and they thought that they were expanding the resolution so that the Chinese and the Russians and some Muslim countries would turn against the resolution and kill it. That's how surprised they were by the way that the United States sort of flipped in those 48 hours.
Now, they very quickly realized that that wasn't the case, that the United States government did a sort of all-out diplomatic offensive to pass the new resolution. But that's how fast the situation changed.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ryan Lizza. He's the Washington correspondent for the New Yorker magazine, and his article in the current edition is called "The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring Remade Obama's Foreign Policy."
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more about your article. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Ryan Lizza, a Washington correspondent for the New Yorker magazine. We're talking about his article in the current edition about how the uprisings in North Africa remade President Obama's foreign policy.
When we left off, we were talking about how Obama didn't want to appear to lead the intervention in Libya, but pushed behind the scenes for an expanded U.N. resolution.
The Obama administration also hasn't wanted to be in the lead in the military action.
Mr. LIZZA: Well, that's exactly right. And there is this view - and I think this view flows partly from Obama's national security advisor, Tom Donilon. I think it's partly from Gates, and no doubt from Obama himself.
And just to take a step back, the view is that we have been - as Donilon told me - overweighted in the Middle East and underweighted in what a lot of Obama officials believe is the most important region to the United States' future, and that is Asia.
So the grand plan of the Obama administration has been: Wind down the war in Iraq, wind down the war in Afghanistan, and try and turn our attention and engagement to Asia, where a lot of countries believe that we have been, in the Bush years, we weren't focused there much.
This has been a huge priority for Hillary Clinton, for example. A lot of her diplomacy and time has been spent engaging with Asian countries that, for economic reasons, will be very important to our future.
And yet what has happened over the last couple of years is that instead of this grand rebalancing, as they call it, we keep getting stuck in the Middle East. And, you know, that's one of the ways in which the president's plan on his first day in office has been, in some ways, thwarted by events on the ground.
GROSS: And a lot of people are describing the situation in Libya now as a standoff.
Mr. LIZZA: As a standoff. And every week that the rebels seem like they just can't finish the job and their gains seem to be reversed by Gadhafi brings a new call for more help.
And Obama laid down this principle early on, that we would have no boots on the ground, that our own role would be extremely limited - again, leading from behind: Let others shoulder some of the burden here.
And what's going to happen, though, is more and more, there'll be countries that say: Well, the United States is the only one who can do X, Y or Z, and the potential that we'll be more and more involved there.
GROSS: So a lot of your piece about President Obama's foreign policy is about the divisions within his team between the realists and the idealists, the idealists being the people who emphasize human rights and democracy. And the realists are, you know, people who are asking like: What are our interests in the country? What's the endgame? Do we really want to commit militarily here?
So some people have said: Well, this is really like a gender division within the White House, with the idealists being the women like Samantha Power and Anne-Marie Slaughter and sometimes Hillary Clinton, you know, arguing for intervention to prevent a massacre, and the realists being the men. Do you see a gender division in the White House?
Mr. LIZZA: I was very skeptical of that analysis going into the piece, but it did come up. It did come up on a couple of occasions, you know, this gendered argument about some of the male members of the team being more interested in hard power and great power relationships and some of the female members of the team being much more conversant in soft power and relationships - not just with states, but with societies.
And look, this came - you know, what I report in this piece is this argument was openly discussed by Anne-Marie Slaughter, who is head of policy planning at the State Department. And she gave a speech on her last day at the State Department, her farewell speech.
And she made exactly the argument that I just recited. She said that there was a gender divide between the realists and the idealists, between the people who think and talk mostly in terms of U.S. interests and those who think and talk more in terms of U.S. values.
So, look, I talked to people at the White House about this, and, you know, they told me this was outlandish. And so it's a very difficult accusation to get to the bottom of.
GROSS: So, you know, meanwhile, we've been talking about Libya. Syria is erupting now. There have been massive protests. Hundreds of people have been killed by the military. The military is remaining loyal - so far, anyways - to President Bashar al-Assad. And the president has been more brutal, I think, than a lot of people expected.
So, again, the Obama administration is faced with a really difficult decision about what, if anything, to do in Syria. So do you think that the calculus here is different from what the calculus has been in other countries? Are the divisions within the Obama administration the same?
Mr. LIZZA: Obama's view of Syria and Iran, two countries that are allied with one another, his theory was that Assad was probably a reasonable person. Assad is this Western-educated - he speaks fluent French and English.
For 11 years in office, we've - people have constantly made the argument that as bad as the Syrian regime is, Assad himself may be someone who you can peel away from Iran, who you can engage with and get him to align more with the West.
And so the big priority in Syria has been to restart Israel-Syrian peace negotiations, and it has been to peel away Assad from his Iranian benefactors.
That strategy is, you know, has basically ended now. I mean, you can't -you know, it's very hard to do that with a regime that is shooting its people in the streets.
GROSS: My guest Ryan Lizza will be back in the second half of the show. His article, "The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring Remade Obama's Foreign Policy," is in the current edition of the New Yorker.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ryan Lizza. We're talking about his article in the current edition of The New Yorker, about how the uprisings in North Africa have remade President Obama's foreign policy. The article also examines disagreements within the Obama administration about intervention. Lizza is a Washington correspondent for The New Yorker.
You traveled with Secretary of State Clinton last month to Cairo and Tunisia, and this was after the uprisings, just after the uprisings.
Mr. LIZZA: Yes.
GROSS: And let's talk about Egypt. Hillary Clinton was scheduled to meet with one of the youth revolutionary groups and they boycotted the meeting with her.
Mr. LIZZA: Yeah. This was really fascinating, Terry. These guys - and these were very important actors. They were the - you know, they're sometimes just known as the Coalition. But they really were the young leaders who are credited with starting the revolution in Egypt. And what I was fascinated to learn is how closely they watched and listened to what American officials said about what they were doing. And this is really, really important, because I think one of the very valid criticisms of the Obama administration is that when President Obama came into office he was extremely sensitive to the idea of the U.S. meddling or interfering with these kinds of movements abroad.
And I think that instinct - there's something very valid about it because very often regime's use U.S. support for these movements - to crush the movement. Right? But I think he may have done it to a fault and I found in the course of reporting that there was some regret of over the handling of the Iranian revolution, for instance. That they thought that Obama's posture of noninterference went too far, to the points where we didn't actually show that it could have been helpful if we showed a little bit more support to the Democratic protesters.
So in Egypt, they had, in a sense, a chance to get that balance right. And I learned when I was in Egypt talking to these protesters, that that really mattered to people on the ground. It really was important to them, where the United States stood. Now Egypt's a different case, of course, because the United States was Mubarak's friend so that was, you know, it was crucial to know whether we were going to stand with Mubarak or stand with the protesters in Tahrir Square. And so these young protesters decided that Hillary Clinton's statement, very early on in the protests, she made a statement that the Mubarak regime is stable.
Now objectively, it wasn't an incorrect statement - the Mubarak regime was stable. But the protesters, this was burned into their memories as Hillary Clinton supporting the Mubarak regime. And that was the reason they cited most often to me, or at least the four members of the coalition who I met with who boycotted her meeting, that was reason that they cited for boycotting her meeting. Interesting yeah.
GROSS: And then you told that to Hillary Clinton. What did she have to say?
Mr. LIZZA: Yes. Yeah because I so I was meeting with these guys at the same time she was meeting with other members of civil society. So she was upstairs in her meeting and these guys were meeting downstairs -boycotting her meeting with me and a couple of other reporters. She was really sort of realistic about it. I mean she pointed out that she was involved with protest movements when she was younger. She talked about her work against the Vietnam War and how in every revolution, every protest, there are people who take absolutist positions and boycott this or that meeting. She didn't really seem too bothered about it, to be honest.
And she, you know, she very pointedly said, you know, Ryan, the people who start revolutions are not necessarily the same people who go on to run the country. And her takeaway - one of the things that came up in our interview, I interviewed her the following day when she was in Tunisia. Her take away was she was very worried about what was going on in terms of the transition in Cairo, because a lot - there's no recent history of political engagement, of party building, and the people that she met with, she found very disorganized and not quite ready for the elections that were coming. And she was very worried about that, and partly because the one group that is very organized is the Muslim Brotherhood.
GROSS: I heard an interview on MORNING EDITION this week, with Mohamed ElBaradei who is running for president, but says he's not going to run if the democratic infrastructure falls apart. And he's concerned that there's not enough time for new parties to pull together, that the election is really coming a little too soon.
Mr. LIZZA: Yeah. That's a big concern. That's a big concern and the folks that could most take advantage of quick elections are the Muslim Brotherhood or the old party - members of Mubarak's old party. And, you know, just one other antidote from that trip that I thought was so revealing about the way that folks in that region of the world see our statesmen, and that is that I sat there with these four young people and one of them was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood...
GROSS: These are one of the revolutionary youth - yeah.
Mr. LIZZA: Yes. The - one of the members of the protest movement. One of them was described - two of them described themselves as liberals. One of them described himself as a Marxist. And one as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. And I asked this young man from the Muslim Brotherhood, if Barack Obama were upstairs right now would you meet with him? And his face lit up and he said yes, I would. And they saw, and all four of them saw Obama's public statements as getting it right. They saw his statement when - especially when he said that Mubarak - that the transition, I don't know if you remember this, but at one point Obama said the transition needs to happen now and that was a very encouraging sign. But anyway, their take away from Obama's handling of the crisis was that he was on their side.
Now for my reporting, I frankly don't think that Secretary Clinton and Obama were very far apart on this issue, but these public statements stick in people's minds. And it did strike me - we talked a lot about this when Obama was a candidate - about how just having a guy name Barack Hussein Obama, an African-American with that name, that that itself would have a big influence on the way that people in that region of the world see us. And that came through in some of my conversations with these activists. That they can relate to Obama in a way that they haven't related to previous American presidents, and that they certainly related to him more during that crisis than they did with Secretary Clinton.
GROSS: My guest is Ryan Lizza. His article in the current edition of The New Yorker is about how the uprisings in North Africa remade President Obama's foreign policy.
We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. His article in the current edition is about how the uprisings in North Africa have remade President Obama's foreign policy.
How much credit do you think United States takes - the Obama administration takes - for pushing Mubarak out of office? Do you remember that speech in Tahrir Square where everybody thought he was going to resign?
Mr. LIZZA: Yes. Yeah.
GROSS: Everybody was prepared for him stepping down, you know, I got to leave and he didn't.
Mr. LIZZA: Yes.
GROSS: And then he left shortly afterwards. But it was such a bizarre speech and he was so confusing in that speech.
Mr. LIZZA: Yes.
GROSS: And everybody, of course, was wondering what's the Obama administration doing with him behind the scenes? I'd love to know what went on in those hours.
Mr. LIZZA: And so here's...
GROSS: Do you have any idea?
Mr. LIZZA: Yeah. Here's what I was able to piece together because I had the exact same questions. What my understanding is that there were people in the Obama administration who were very hung up on a sort of technical matter, and that is the Egyptian Constitution. So if the United States really, early on, pushed hard for Mubarak to resign this document, which I don't think anyone was really an expert on until this crisis, and didn't really seem to matter much - the Egyptian Constitution - it called for the speaker of the Egyptian parliament to take over the presidency.
Well, it turns out that the speaker of the Egyptian parliament is a pretty bad guy and the Obama administration was, you know, horrified by the idea that this guy would suddenly become president of Egypt. It didn't seem that that's what the protesters in Tahrir Square wanted and it didn't seem like it was in anyone's interest to do that. So they were looking for a solution that would essentially keep Mubarak as president where you could have his signature to change the constitution or to implement whatever scheme you needed to implement to get a transitional government set up.
And that, early on, seemed was sort of the favored position of many of the members of the administration. And this was frankly, something that Mubarak was saying to American officials and that he was pushing as well. He was telling them look, I can't resign because this guy is going to take over and you don't want that guy to take over. And so when he gave that speech, if you read it carefully, it was this meandering strange speech. But embedded in that speech are a couple of lines when Mubarak does sort of hint at this constitutional issue and he hints at how he's going to stick around a little longer to make the necessary changes. But that's not how it came out and that's not how the protesters in Tahrir heard it. And so as their demands became more maximalist, as the protesters in Tahrir Square, as their demands became more maximalist and they demanded his resignation, it became increasingly untenable for the Obama administration to pursue this sort of soft landing for Mubarak where he is technically president but sort of helps implement this nice smooth transition to democracy.
And Obama made the decision, basically after watching Mubarak's speech during a national security meeting at the White House, that he was going to call Mubarak, sort of take his temperature, and then make his own public statement.
And I got a pretty lengthy readout on his call with Mubarak, at least President Obama's side of the call. And he went back and forth with Mubarak, you know, can you make these constitutional changes? You know, can you set up a transitional government? And the feeling from the White House was that Mubarak simply wasn't going to be responsive. He didn't understand how serious that the protesters were. He didn't understand the pressure he was under. And I think that's the moment where they sort of abandoned Mubarak to a certain extent. And abandon may be a...
GROSS: When they abandoned Mubarak...
Mr. LIZZA: Yeah.
GROSS: ...then what?
Mr. LIZZA: Yeah. And so that's the...
GROSS: Did they say to him you've got to go or else?
Mr. LIZZA: Well, this is a really important question, Terry -historically. And my understanding is that on that phone call the president of the United States never told Mubarak you immediately have to resign. Now remember, at that point, they had already asked him to announce that he would not run for president. So they had accomplished that and they did push them towards that. But the White House's view of Obama's last phone call with Mubarak, is that the president - while not using the words you have to resign as president - all but told Mubarak that that was the message they were sending. I think it's a little bit -little, slightly opaque but certainly the readout I have from that call is that that's the signal that they were sending. That you need -there's got to be a graceful way, that just announcing that you're not going to run for reelection isn't enough, that the protesters in Tahrir Square are demanding more and we need to find a solution that pushes you off the stage.
Now, what accomplished that I think in a much more dramatic fashion was the public statement that Obama made after he talked to Mubarak. And he says that the transition needs to begin now. Now that doesn't sound like much, but in the Middle East that was an earthquake. And as one State Department official told me, the people around Mubarak got extremely angry after that statement and they interpreted this as a real break between Obama and Mubarak.
And the Saudi's and other regional allies interpreted this as a very aggressive statement. If you're Saudi Arabia, you're sitting there thinking wow, the United States just overthrew a friend of 30 years. If we get into trouble will they do that to us, as well.
GROSS: Obama has been described as not having a foreign policy doctrine.
Mr. LIZZA: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: Some people think that's a good thing. Means he's flexible.
Mr. LIZZA: Yes.
GROSS: And other people think that's a bad thing. It means he hasn't thought it through. He doesn't have a system. He doesn't have a context.
Mr. LIZZA: Yes.
GROSS: The title of your article is "The Consequentialist," which is how some of his aides have described his foreign policy style. He's a consequentialist.
Mr. LIZZA: Yes.
GROSS: So what does that mean?
Mr. LIZZA: Well, it basically means that he wants to do what works, right? He doesn't care about whether it's realist or idealist. It's - at the end of the day what are the consequences of the actions and what are the effects? That effects matter more than ideology. And you're so right about this view of doctrine and whether it's good to have a doctrine or bad to have a doctrine.
I talked to a lot of people, you know, about this to sort of get some, you know, some sort of historical perspective on whether doctrines are good or bad for presidents. You know, on the one hand you'll find people who say doctrines are the worst thing. As soon as you lay down a doctrine you're hemming yourself in. You're limiting your choices. You don't, you know - you don't want to lay down doctrines. You don't want to lay down ironclad rules for how the U.S. operates in the world because that will, you know, that will put a straitjacket on your ability to maneuver.
Other folks say, well, you have to have some broad principles, you know - whether you call it a doctrine or not - you have to have something that some compass that guides your foreign policy, otherwise everything is ad hoc and how you act in one case doesn't relate well to how you act in another case.
GROSS: Ryan Lizza is a Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. His article about how the Arab Spring remade President Obama's foreign policy is in the current edition. You'll find a link to it on our website: freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.