On Egypt, Obama falters

Rarely does a single city block demand so much attention. But since last Friday, the world’s eyes have been focused on a city square outside a museum in Cairo, Egypt. There, protest—by turns peaceful and violent—have erupted calling for the ouster of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

Mubarak is something of a relic in the region. Serving first as a high-profile general in the Egyptian army, he was installed as president of Egypt after the assassination of Anwar Sadat. That was 1981. Since then his regime has maintained an authoritarian—we would go so far as to say tyrannical—control over Egypt, silencing rivals and denying reforms.

So when democratic protesters took to the streets last Friday—giddy with the recent victory of Tunisians in overthrowing their dictator—the international response was strongly in favor of the uprising and against the leader who repressed his citizens and mismanaged the economy. Response was even more positive after pro-Mubarak demonstrators (possibly police in plain clothes) attacked the anti-government crowd Wednesday.

But what of President Obama’s response to the democratic upheaval in Egypt? He hedged, equivocated, and tried to both have his cake, and eat it, too. His motives were understandable; his actions were untenable. Egypt is a strategic ally in the region where America has few. When it comes to American aid—Egypt receives more money for it than any other country—Mubarak’s chief asset is location, location, location. The administration didn’t want to risk alienating Egyptian foreign policy officials if he backed a revolution without staying power.

But while Egypt’s borders afford its dictators undue respect, it is freedom that knows no bounds. If one reads Obama’s initial statements one would have not even the slightest clue where the sympathies of the American government had laid, on, that we were watching the situation "closely" (whatever that means). It was as if curtain went up on the protests, but a key supporting character refused to play his part.

Thankfully, later releases from the president expressed a more open, if still reserved, support of the protesters—especially after Mubarak took the oh-so-dictatorial step of shutting down access to the Internet. And now his daily updates on the uprising seem solidly pro-protesters.

Still, the United States hasn’t yet updated its reflexes from the Cold War, when we supported regimes and casts of unsavory characters in order to stem the tide of international communism in locales as diverse as Iran and Latin America. Now the threat is terrorism and radical Islam. The battleground is the land of the pharaohs. But the playbook—which never really worked in the first place—is the same.

America needs a new knee-jerk reaction rather than continue to acquiesce to tyrannical interest in a name of security. The problem with that solution is that it wins the battle but loses the war. Sure, individual countries can be kept secure under the thumb of thuggish rulers, but they tend to be overthrown by just the sort of radicals one was seeking to keep at bay. And then they tend not to be so friendly. It’s a dynamic tension where the resistance strengthens the push.

Last Friday, Barack Obama had a chance to truly reset relations in the Middle East—as he promised to do in a speech in Cairo in 2009. But when he saw the future coming, he blinked. Let us just hope the new government in Egypt believes in second chances.