Last night, I attended the White House's State of the Union "tweet up," a gathering of a couple hundred new media addicts at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. We watched an "enhanced" version of the speech with all sorts of graphs and graphics, though I was too busy tweeting to watch. The scene at the #WHTweetup was geek chic, with most heads down busy clicking their thumbs on Apple products. Too bad the Middle East scarcely figured into the speech.
On the sidelines of the event I had the opportunity to have a few words with Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. Rhodes was the author of Obama's Cairo speech, which has continued to frame the White House's approach to the region even as the tectonic plates have dramatically shifted in the interim. Here is the exclusive interview:
What is President Obama's message for Tahrir Square where Egyptians are gathering right now? Ben Rhodes: We did a statement today. But basically tomorrow is an important day -- it's one year since the anniversary. We are taking a number of steps to support Egypt's transition to democracy. We've seen a number of important steps in recent days: the parliament; the announcement by [SCAF leader] Tantawi that they're going to get rid of the emergency law. So our message is [that] we support their transition. We're going to be there on the other side of it. We're supporting the government as they take steps to implement the transition, and we want to see them follow that road map. We want to see Egypt as a model for the rest of the region.
What about the rest of the region, which sees Washington supporting autocrats in other countries? We're about to host Yemeni President Saleh. We continue to support Bahrain, and the Jordanian king visited the White House last week. Rhodes: We support a set of universal values that the president spoke about today -- a process of change in each of these countries. But it's going to be different in each of these countries.