For about ten minutes on MSNBC Monday, Harvard History professor Niall Ferguson offered a articulate, detailed, and biting indictment of President Obama's handling of the crisis Egypt – and those disagreeing on the usually Obamaphilic "Morning Joe" panel could offer little of substance in response.
Co-host Mika Brzezinski began the segment reading Ferguson's latest column – which is the latest Newsweek magazine cover story – and asked him to expound on Egypt, saying that "it actually seems like it went pretty damn well." Perhaps she is referring to the many joyful reports from Tahrir Square amidst jubilant masses, or maybe CBS' Harry Smith doling out kisses to the crowd – but Ferguson offered a more dire assessment of the situation.
"You cannot make the foreign policy of a superpower up as you go along," Ferguson stated. He bludgeoned the Obama administration's slipshod policy, calling it "flip followed by flop followed by flip." He added that "they admitted that they had not planned for this scenario. I find that absolutely astonishing."
(Video after the jump.)
Brzezinski made one more meek attempt to stick up for the White House, but Ferguson politely declined to join her in her optimism. "I wish I shared your confidence," he countered. "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's for the imposition and enforcement of Sharia law and the restoration of the caliphate."
Ferguson added that to call this a victory is entirely premature and very possibly false, due to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood which very well could happen. "Then we will be staring at something comparable in its magnitude to 1979 in Iran," he said.
Liberal Washington Post op-ed columnist Jonathan Capehart entered the fray to temper Ferguson's predictions, and tried to put the pressure back on him. "I think it's far too early to say it's a disaster," he claimed. "What would you have done if you were in that situation?" he asked Ferguson.
After he was answered, Capehart pressed Ferguson again, asking if he thought Obama was "oversensitive" and wanted to withdraw and let the sovereign nation of Egypt solve its own problems. "No, they just looked like they hadn't a clue. It's as simple as that," Ferguson succinctly responded. "You have to have a strategy, which means prioritizing, and you have to scenario-build. And they did neither."
At the end of the segment, both Scarborough and Brzezinski still thought that the outcome of the Egyptian crisis went well.
A transcript of the segment, which aired on February 14 at 8:21 a.m. EST, is as follows:
MIKA BRZEZINSKI: 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.
NIALL FERGUSON: Well you could be forgiven for thinking that, but it's very early days. And could 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 that 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 that made a speech in June 2009 in Cairo, a speech which was distinctly touchy-feely, and since then nobody seems to have considered 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 wasn't it 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 just talking about the lack of preparation, and perhaps pre-emptive 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 minute 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 in shambles.
BRZEZINSKI: 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's for the imposition and enforcement of Sharia law and the restoration of the Caliphate. And anybody who could count 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 that 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.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: 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 what would you have done if you were in that situation? Just reading your piece, I got the distinct impression that you have this view that foreign policy and particularly 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 look, 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 have considered the possibility that there would 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 it'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 and 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.
FERGUSON: President Obama is one of the least experienced men, in terms of foreign policy, ever to occupy the White House. And yet he has advisors 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.
FERGUSON: 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 a historian – most revolutions do not lead 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-dominat 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.
FERGUSON: As far as I can see, President Obama's strategic concept is "I'm not George W. Bush. Love me."
SCARBOROUGH: Niall did actually wrap up the President's foreign policy plan, at least on the campaign trail.
FERGUSON: 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.
SCARBOROUGH: Like I said, personally I think Egypt went pretty darn well.
BRZEZINSKI: I think it went really well, I have to say.