Such tightrope-walking is the very stuff of high-stakes diplomacy, and by the lights of an assortment of masters of the art, including Baker and Henry Kissinger, Obama and his team enacted it with considerable skill. Despite the yapping of some on the nuthouse right, who are already developing a precooked narrative that Obama should be blamed for “losing Egypt” when it inevitably becomes a radicalized Islamist state, the vast majority of mainstream Republicans also supported Obama’s maneuvers.
That Obama would earn bi-partisan support in his handling of his first major foreign crisis is not as surprising as it might seem. To the consternation of some on the left, his handling of national-security matters over the past two years has been firmly rooted in the centrist-realist Establishment consensus from which almost all of his foreign-policy team hails. From Clinton to Defense Secretary Robert Gates to the new national-security adviser, Tom Donilon, these are hardheaded people with a deep understanding of Realpolitik and a commitment to long-range thinking. In the case of Egypt, that has meant an abiding concern for what comes next: in terms of Egyptian cooperation on counterterrorism, on access to the Suez Canal, on standing fast against Iran. Perhaps most of all—if perhaps less than the panicked members of the Israeli political class—they are worried about what a new, probably less secular, Egyptian government will mean for the Holy Land.
With all this in mind, the swift departure of Mubarak of his own accord, followed by an orderly transition to a reformed democratic system, would have been the ideal scenario, one in which America would have applied—and would have been seen to have applied—only the lightest touch. But it was not to be. With Mubarak’s refusal to go gently into that good night compounded by his decision to unleash his goon squads, Obama’s hand was forced. Thus the open break with Cairo in the middle of last week. And thus the news on Thursday that the Obama administration was pushing a proposal whereby Mubarak would step down posthaste and be replaced by a transitional government headed by Suleiman with the support of the Egyptian military.
In the meantime, to be sure, the damage inflicted by Mubarak’s crackdown was severe—and it raised the question of whether swifter and more forceful action by Obama might have been in order. Yet the truth is that the pace of progress in Egypt has been remarkable. Within eleven days of the start of the uprising, the pressure from the street in combination with the pressure from Washington yielded an array of concessions that a month ago would have been unthinkable: Mubarak agreeing not to run for reelection; the forswearing of the notion that his son, Gamal, long seen as his chosen heir apparent, would succeed him; the call by Suleiman for an open dialogue with the opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which remains officially banned. It is hard to imagine that any of this could have come much more quickly than it did.
And certainly not because of anything that Obama could have said or done. As David Ignatius wrote last week in the Washington Post, “Washington debate about the new Arab revolt tends to focus on the U.S. role: Has President Obama blundered by not forcing Mubarak out sooner? Should America abandon other oligarchs before it’s too late? But this isn’t about us. If Washington … can help broker a stable transition to new elections, so much the better. But Egyptians don’t need America to chart their course.”
Don’t need—and don’t want. No doubt some of the protesters in Tahrir Square pined for a clear sign that Obama was on their side. And no doubt many will be grateful if Obama and his people help to speed Mubarak’s exit. But the power of what is taking place in Egypt—and in Tunisia and, maybe soon, elsewhere—is that it is a local, organic, bottom-up phenomenon in which the United States has not loomed large. It really is not about us. And nor is the hard work that lies ahead, work much harder than the removal of a despot, the work of building a functioning democracy. Obama’s handling of the crisis suggests that he understands this. Here’s hoping that the aftermath of the crisis proves it definitively.