Congress gets bipartisan on Egypt

It’s good to see Republicans and Democrats coming together in a foreign-policy crisis.  It’s only diminished slightly by the lack of any real options to the course taken by President Obama in response to the unrest in Egypt.  But at least they’ve taken the opportunity to give their impotence a cool-sounding name:

Congress has taken an unusually bipartisan approach toward the mounting crisis in Egypt, with House and Senate leaders standing behind the Obama administration’s message that Egyptians should make an “orderly transition” to avoid a violent conclusion to the week-long standoff. …

On Monday and over the weekend, a collection of leaders from both parties followed a “one voice” approach of standing behind Sunday’s public remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“We’re watching a historic moment. . . . We need to have an orderly transition to democracy in Egypt,” Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters Monday, using the precise phrase that Clinton echoed during interviews with five major Sunday news talk shows. “I support the universally recognized rights of the Egyptian people to freedom of speech, assembly and association.”

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who voiced support for the White House on Sunday, declined to expand upon those remarks on Monday.

“I don’t have any criticism of President Obama or Secretary Clinton at this point,” McConnell said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I mean, they know full well that we can’t give the Egyptians advice about who their leadership is. That’s beyond the reach of the United States. And I think we ought to speak as one voice during this crisis.”

Of course, to paraphrase Jacques Chirac, a few people missed a golden opportunity to keep quiet.  Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) demanded Mubarak’s resignation, as did Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY).  Today, John Kerry reminded everyone why he may have been the one man who could have lost to George W. Bush in 2004 by adding his call demanding the resignation of a West-leaning despot with no idea of what might follow in the vacuum left behind.

The Obama administration has played its cards more intelligently than Kerry and the remarkably few ankle-biters from his own party.  The US can’t afford to be seen overtly pitching Mubarak over the side, not after getting nearly 30 years of normalization with Israel from him, a policy which is deeply unpopular among the protesters and especially with the Muslim Brotherhood.  That kind of abandonment would have serious consequences for our relationship with Jordan, for one example, and with Israel itself.  The White House has sided with the right of political expression and urged Mubarak to reform, which would necessarily lead to the end of his regime, without calling for an end to it explicitly, and pledging to work with Mubarak on a legitimate transition.  That leaves our credibility with other allies in the region less damaged, while aligning ourselves with the values for which we stand.

Had Obama done any different, Congress would almost certainly split in reaction.  Since this is the only rational path we can tread, Congress can take the opportunity to declare a “one voice” policy during the crisis, which at least doesn’t undermine Obama’s very limited ability to influence events in Egypt.