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Mubarak steps down. Will Obama step up?

Regarding the revolt in Egypt, Washington has so far taken an ineffective, middle-of-the road approach. Even as President Obama called for a credible path toward democracy, he must back the opposition protesters much more decisively.

By Jacob Bronsther / February 11, 2011

New York

H.L. Mencken wrote that for every complex problem there is one solution “that is simple, neat, and wrong.” When it comes to the American response to the crisis in Egypt, it appears we have two of them.

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One relies on the idea that the US can determine the outcome of this new transition period. The other depends on the notion that there will be dire consequences if we back the opposition and a supporter of (former) President Hosni Mubarak retains power. Both assumptions, while seductive, are false.

Consequently, Washington has taken an ineffective, middle-of-the road approach.

As Egyptian history continues to sprint forward following Mr. Mubarak's resignation, the Obama administration should back the opposition much more decisively, however disparate and uncertain its makeup and aims. For if one of Mubarak’s comrades in the military or his National Democratic Party emerges stably in power, we lose very little. They will not change the policies we care about. If the opposition ends up gaining power, however, our position is dramatically stronger than it would be otherwise.

President Obama cheered on the spirit of the Egyptian people today and called on the military to ensure a speedy path toward free and fair elections. Though he did not commit himself to anything, let's hope it was the first step toward a new policy.

Obsessed with the first faulty argument, most of Washington has pondered one question above all: Who do we want to take the reins of Egyptian power?

Gary Sick outlined the supposed challenges to this decision in Foreign Policy a few weeks ago, “Should you back the regime to the hilt, in the conviction that a change of leadership would likely endanger your most precious security interests? Or should you side with the opposition – either because you agree with its goals or simply because you want to be on the ‘right side of history’ (and in a better position to pursue your policy objectives) once the dust has settled?”

According to this view, once we’ve determined which endgame best serves our cold interests, warm ideals, or some tepid combination of the two, we are to throw our power – indeed, our hegemonic influence – behind that outcome.

We're not pharaoh-makers


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