The Obama administration has gradually been adjusting to reality. On Friday evening, President Obama was still exhorting President Mubarak: “I told him he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise.” By this morning, Secretary Clinton had basically abandoned Mubarak. She was talking to Chris Wallace about the need for “a transition to democracy,” “an orderly transition to a democratic government,” “an orderly transition” with a “a well thought-out plan that will bring about a democratic, participatory government.”
It’s clear such a government will be a post-Mubarak government. Indeed, it will be a post military-rule government (which isn’t to say the military wouldn’t have to play a key transitional role and wouldn’t continue as an important force after). It’s good that Secretary Clinton sees this, and that we have a role to play in making it happen.
But Secretary Clinton still seems to think that orderly implies gradual. Often, in life, it does. But we’re not in that kind of business-as-usual moment. In a crisis like this, moving quickly is often more important than moving in an “orderly” way. After all, an “orderly” transition is far less important than a desirable and orderly outcome. Trying to ensure now that everything is “well thought-out” to the satisfaction of diplomats can easily become an excuse for a drawn-out transition. And that means trouble. The more drawn-out this transition is, the more likely it is to end badly. The best case—the least radicalizing one for the population, the least advantageous for the Muslim Brotherhood—would be a quick transition now to an interim government, with the prospect of elections not too far off, so people can rally to the prospect of a new liberal regime. Uncertainty and dithering is what helps the Lenins and Khomeinis in revolutionary situations. Acting boldly to prevent more disarray and more chaos offers the best chance for an orderly outcome.
Helping Egypt transition to a liberal democracy is something worth doing. It should be the focus of major efforts, public and private, by the U.S. government and our allies. But precisely because it is worth doing, ‘twere well it were done quickly.