Since it’s too early to tell what Egypt will become, it’s too early for President Obama's supporters to gloat or for his detractors to assign credit for the Egyptian revolution to former President George W. Bush.
The hard truth Obama must now grapple with, and must then communicate to the American people, is that the revolution was fomented by an oppressed people who don’t much like America and don’t much like Israel -- and who risk ushering in a government that is less friendly to both. And yet, he must share the universal expression of joy that washed over Tahrir Square when news broke that Mubarak was out of Cairo, probably never to return.
An hour after Mubarak’s resignation was announced, a senior Democratic official who’ll play a role in Obama’s presidential campaign was arguing that “people will remember -- despite some fumbles yesterday -- that the president played an excellent hand, walked the right line and that his statement last night was potentially decisive in bringing this issue to a close.”
It’s true that many Obama aides want to view the events as an affirmation of the president’s leadership on the international stage. But they’re cautious.
More so now than before Mubarak resigned, Egypt is Obama’s “you break it, you bought it” moment, the first real test of whether his campaign promise to wean the U.S. from an overbearing foreign policy that told other nations what to do and, instead, move toward one based on interests and values is something that the real world can absorb.
Obama has never sought the hard break with Wilsonian idealism that he’s often accused of. He’s just brought a bit of the temperance associated with American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who cautioned that evil will always be with us. For Obama, the U.S. doesn’t hover above history. America doesn’t have the raw strength to dictate its will throughout the world, but as the single stable superpower, it will always play a role in influencing the course of events. He recognized how the U.S. had become a lightning rod in the Arab world, and how U.S. intervention might not always be the right course.
This is something the president keenly appreciates. He did not grow up inside the continental United States. He spent several of his formative years immersed in a multi-ethnic, Pacific culture that is radically foreign to Americans. He knows what it’s like to be outside the ambit of American power, for good and for ill.
For days, critics have noted the vacillating messages from the Egyptian government and interpreted them as evidence that Obama’s foreign-policy team was sending conflicting signals. But that’s like blaming John McCain for Sarah Palin’ s independent streak during the 2008 campaign. Egypt’s military, which has behaved relatively well, already has legitimacy among the protesters and has always seen itself as the arbiter of Hosni Mubarak’s power structure.
U.S. influence in Egypt is transitive and not uniform. It has little influence over the protesters, who are the real arbiters of the revolution. Indeed, the protesters for the most part don’t seem to care what American officials are saying. On the other hand, they aren't accepting the idea that America is engaged in a malevolent effort to topple the current regime and replace it with something worse, either.
There is space between America and the Egyptian protesters. Obama is not driving Egyptian politics. That might upset people who think that unless America fully, forcefully, and almost ferally projects its power, the U.S. will be seen as weak and its agenda will be co-opted by its enemies.
But there are no Paul Bremers in the Obama administration -- no one who wants to impose changes on another country based on a theory of the case. That’s because Obama doesn’t think America actually has the ability to impose changes without creating a cascade of unknowable contingencies. Nor does he think America has the right to do so.
As military historian Geoffrey Wawro writes in his book Quicksand: America's Pursuit of Power in the Middle East, the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda,” this trillion-dollar extension of military might, was based on an “idea” about what the toppling of Iraq would do to other countries in the region. It wasn't so simple, of course. But the question now is whether there will be a domino effect from Cairo to Beirut to Riyadh and beyond.
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned amid the revolution in Tunisia that Arab governments risked “sinking into the sand” if they failed to recognize the urgency of the moment, she wasn’t going off script. Where America can exercise its power to influence outcomes for the good, it will. Where it can push hard behind the scenes to further American interests, it will.
If Egypt succeeds in an orderly transition to a true democracy -- something we won’t know for months -- if not years, Obama won’t score the points. But his worldview might get credit for an assist.