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The President in Occultation

Obama and Egypt.

Item: “In recounting Saturday’s deliberations, [administration officials] said Mr. Obama was acutely conscious of avoiding any perception that the United States was once again quietly engineering the ouster of a major Middle East leader. … ‘He said several times that the outcome has to be decided by the Egyptian people, and the U.S. cannot be in a position of dictating events.’”—David E. Sanger and Helene Cooper, The New York Times, January 30.

Item: “It is better for President Obama not to appear that he is the last one to say to President Mubarak “It’s time for you to go.’” —Mohammed ElBaradei, Cairo, January 30.

President Obama’s light and somewhat mysterious touch during the crisis in Egypt is both easy and hard to understand. Easy, because the course of the rebellion is still maddeningly obscure, and he must be careful; and hard, because the historical sense that he is bringing to the American role in this crisis is only partially accurate and is misplaced. The precedents that Obama has in mind seem to be the recent one of the invasion of Iraq and the distant one of the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran (a historical memory that figured prominently in the discussion of his lukewarm reception of the Iranian uprising in 2009)—precedents that inhibit a vigorous new American policy, and confer upon the United States a previous guilt that needs to be expiated by some sort of abstention from the fall of Mubarak, a prior disqualification from positive historical action. The president’s experience of the past two years—especially of Iran’s militant rejection of his “extended hand”—does not appear to have rattled the assumption that he held when he came into office, which is that the United States has behaved villainously in the Arab world and so must now behave penitently, or at least in a way that will not repeat a certain paradigm.

It should be possible to learn from history without becoming a prisoner of the past. Whatever the merit of Obama’s analysis of Iraq in 2003 and Iran in 1953, this is Egypt in 2011, and there are reasons to believe that his notion of American historical responsibility may be unduly fettering the administration from getting on the right side of history. For a start, there is anecdotal evidence that the protestors want America’s support. ElBaradei made this clear when he appeared in Tahrir Square yesterday. A blogger at the demonstrations in Cairo sent out the photograph of a man carrying a placard that reads, “AMERICA: SUPPORT the People NOT the Tyrant.” In Tahrir Square today, Nick Kristof reported via Twitter: “interviewed many folks at Tahrir. They see US as still supporting Mubarak. They plead with US to remove that support.” To be sure, there are also anti-American forces in the Egyptian crowds, but that is still another reason for the president to stand with the pro-American forces. Their pro-Americanism, after all, is their way of indicating that they want a part in a secular world of liberty.

It is precisely the obscurity of the situation, morever, that makes Obama’s support for the democratizers of Egypt more urgent. Since the outcome of the revolution is completely unclear, we must do what we can to influence it. This revolution has so far not been centrally directed, and there will be a struggle over its fruits. Particular factions, the Muslim Brotherhood most notable among them, will attempt to turn the revolution in particular ways, and to take it over; and those factions that seek to prevent an Islamist appropriation of the post-Mubarak moment, those factions that really do aspire to democracy and stability, will need help. Helping these people—our natural allies, philosophically and politically—will hardly count as a stain on America’s record. Why should we not put ourselves in a position to retard and to impede the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been cunningly biding its time?     

America’s record in crises of democratization, moreover, is more complicated, and more admirable, than Obama seems to recognize. His apparent view that our support for a dictatorship hobbles us in our support for a democracy, and disqualifies us from a proud and active role in transforming a closed society into an open one, is belied by the splendid precedents of the Philippines, South Korea, and Chile, where the United States wisely and agilely pivoted from cosseting a tyrannical regime to helping to replace it. It was a great day in 1986 when Ronald Reagan dispatched Paul Laxalt to Manila to tell Ferdinand Marcos that his time was up—and it was precisely our previous support for Marcos that made Reagan’s message so credible and so decisive. Reagan was not inhibited by our past (I understand that in his view there had been nothing shameful in our support of an anti-communist dictator, but that is another matter) from demonstrating the flexibility necessary for political and strategic progress. Maybe Frank Wisner is Obama’s Paul Laxalt. We will know soon enough.

We have $3 billion a year worth of leverage over Egypt. Egypt is the largest and most important Arab country. The popular struggle for democracy in Egypt is already the most stirring story in contemporary Arab history—more stirring than the story of Iraq, where liberalization came out of war. The peace treaty between Egypt and Israel is the foundation of the possibilities for peace and prosperity in the region. This, in short, is one of history’s hours of malleability and promise. And the president of the United States is in occultation, equivocating.       

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor for The New Republic.