It follows that Mubarak has to know exactly what we want. Do we know what we want? My impression is that we are confused, just as in 1979. Obama’s statement the other day (yesterday if I remember rightly) was not encouraging. “The future of Egypt will be determined by the Egyptian people” and we will support them. What does that mean? There’s a fight going on, and we have to take sides. I think Mubarak is entitled to wonder just what we want, and that’s dangerous, because it means that his decisions will be driven at least in part by guesswork and suspicion.
As I’ve said, that we have come to this impasse shows a long-standing policy failure, just as it did in Iran in 1979. We should have supported democratic opposition forces all along (footnote: it’s quite amusing to hear former officials proclaiming “we can’t support dictatorship” when they did precisely that when they were in office. Including some, like C. Rice, who promised to support democrats and then didn’t.). But we didn’t, the London Telegraph’s misleading headline writers notwithstanding. Now we have no attractive options. Too bad.
So even if our intelligence is weak, we still have to make decisions, and the basic rule has to be the same as Hippocrates’ injunction to doctors: don’t make things worse. Don’t inflict an even worse tyranny on the Egyptian people, one that is likely to plunge the region into a big war. If that means working with the generals to create a transition government that promises to shape a more attractive polity, so be it. The lesser of two evils is a legitimate policy decision.
In fact, it’s the most common one. I’m sure Obama hates being in this position, as any of us would. But he’s got to make decisions. Clearly and emphatically. And stay on top of it, which is not at all his style or inclination.
And that’s the final similarity with 1979: the wrong American in the wrong job at a crucial time. Let’s hope that the Almighty truly does protect the blind, the drunk, and the United States of America.
It’s even better to be lucky than to be smart.