Unfortunately, the White House took the worst possible course. It was overly specific and, in particular, hailed rather limited steps that were taken by President Mubarak e.g., appointing a Prime Minister. The people then assumed that the U.S. was fully satisfied with that outcome, a situation they still found unsatisfactory. That the U.S. position shifted further when it became clear that President Mubarak's hold on power was crumbling came too late to alter the perceptions created by its earlier positions.
Effective communication can be challenging. Muddled messages can inflict lingering damage.
Tragically, the ongoing situation in Libya that follows closely on the heels of Egypt has revealed little or no learning in the White House. In this case, where widespread crimes against humanity and war crimes are being committed and the U.S. has no compelling interests in preserving the Gadhafi regime, the White House should take a visible role on the side of the victims of those crimes. Instead, it has been almost mute. Indeed, yesterday's speech by the President was quite unsatisfactory. The Los Angeles Times reported:
In his first public comments on the Libyan crisis, President Obama said Wednesday his administration is preparing "the full range of options" to respond and condemned the government's "outrageous and unacceptable" suppression of its citizens' rights.
The speech occurred nine days into the violence. That the U.S. was just preparing options suggests that it had not prepared in advance for such situations in general. One would reasonably think that with unrest that preceded the turmoil in Libya, someone would have asked the general question as to how the U.S. should respond if other countries in the region experienced turmoil? The concept of spillovers/contagion is not a novel one. Instead, the U.S. was caught by surprise and is struggling to catch up with events.
In sum, I believe the Egyptian youths' question is a natural outcome of ineffective communication.
Far more troubling, it appears that even as unrest had been occurring previously in Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen, the U.S. was caught by surprise by developments in Libya and had little idea how to respond. That the U.S. was still unprepared some nine days into the events is extremely disturbing. The U.S. has major international interests. Being blind to major risks is hazardous. What if Bahrain's government were toppled and a new regime demanded the removal of the American base? Would the U.S. be unprepared? What if Iran took advantage of its rising power a few years down the road and settled land disputes with its neighbors by force? Would the U.S. be unprepared? What if North Korea launched a massive artillery bombardment on South Korea a few years in the future? Would the U.S. be unprepared?
Finally, this lack of preparation is not partisan. Instead, it appears to be a chronic issue that transcends Administrations. Previously, the U.S. was caught by surprise when insurgencies developed in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as the structural dynamics and historic experience of both states indicated an extremely high risk of such developments. IMO, the Administration needs to make it a priority to develop "early warning" systems/methodologies, mitigate cognitive biases (e.g., only focusing on information that seems to confirm prevailing views while filtering out information that challenges them) and develop contingency plans to deal with major risks that could impact the U.S./ critical U.S. interests (national security, geopolitical, and economic). That contingency planning should also outline communications strategy so that messages are clear, concise, and do not create confusion/misperceptions.