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.
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Even if we wanted to, however, we cannot fix this fight. We simply lack the power to be pharoah-makers.Skip to next paragraph
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Do we have influence? Yes. Approximately $1.5 billion in annual aid has to buy something. We have the ear of the political and military elites and we have the threat of turning off the spigot. But that’s not worth much in revolutionary times, when everything is on the line – the meaning of the past, the direction of the future, and maybe life itself for the losing side.
Given these stakes, we are, like George Washington Carver, working with peanuts. Imagine us presenting regime leaders with the choice of maintaining power without American aid and support, or losing power entirely. And while the opposition would welcome Mr. Obama’s assistance, they are not about to change their plans if it’s not forthcoming.
Yet many commentators rely on the assumption that US holds enormous sway over the final outcome. In The Daily Beast, Leslie Gelb worried about the Muslim Brotherhood seizing power and set out a complex best-case-scenario featuring a transition toward “real democracy.” He called on the US to push hard toward this outcome. Stephen Walt argued in Foreign Policy that from his “realist” perspective, the US ought to advance the protesters’ cause, since a democratic Egypt would be more stable domestically, more respected internationally, and thus more valuable as an ally. Leon Wieseltier wrote in The New Republic that “we must do what we can to influence [the revolution],” and in favor of the democratic protesters.
If only we could. We can still control a lot of the world, just not all of it all the time. If we had good reason to believe our influence would tip the balance, it would be a different scenario. But we don’t.
People who realize this, the Obama administration seemingly included, tend to endorse the second “simple, neat, and false” solution. It goes like this. Since we cannot determine the revolution’s outcome, we ought to wait and see who will emerge victorious and then throw our support to that side. In the meantime, we ought to use what limited influence we have, but above all ride a malleable middle ground position.
Yes, no, maybe
Like a good politician faced with a question he’d rather not answer, Mr. Obama and his team have said yes, no, and maybe at the same time, refusing to commit themselves to any particular outcome, and making pitches to each side that they have America’s support.