This is the 3 a.m. phone call. Will President Obama rise to the occasion?
He could, and he should. His initial diagnosis two years ago of the Middle East proved wrong. His administration’s initial response to the crisis in Egypt has been halting. His normal supporters are befuddled. The soft “realists” who tend to populate his administration’s foreign policy councils, who failed realistically to see what was coming, are wishing the whole thing would somehow go away. His secretary of State is leading aid missions to Haiti.
It’s up to President Obama to seize the moment. It’s not too late for him to do so. But the stakes are high, and the situation is urgent. Egypt’s path may be determined in the next 48 hours. President Obama can overcome all the counsels of timidity and passivity. He can take charge of his administration. He can help usher Mubarak out—his presence is now a source of instability, and the longer the showdown continues, the greater the odds of a bad outcome. He can get the U.S. engaged—to some degree publicly, but on all cylinders privately. Our ability to shape events is limited, we keep on being told. That’s true—but we don’t know how much we can do until we try. And what’s the downside? We can’t bring back the status quo ante.
The New York Times reported on Saturday that Obama is “acutely conscious of avoiding any perception that the United States was once again quietly engineering the ouster of a major Middle East leader.” It’s time for him to stop anachronistically obsessing over Iran in 1953 (assuming that’s what he’s referring to). Our problem in the Middle East isn’t that we’ve quietly engineered the ouster of too many Middle East leaders in recent decades. We’ve probably engineered the ouster of too few. In any case, we’re beyond that now. President Obama can side with the Egyptian people, use our considerable leverage and assets in Egypt to help work for a decent and quick transition, and help shape an outcome that will be good for Egypt and could be a milestone for the Middle East.
Aluf Benn, writing in Haaretz, predicts that "Barack Obama will be remembered as the president who ‘lost’ Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt, and during whose tenure America's alliances in the Middle East crumbled." Not necessarily. He could be remembered as the president who “won” Egypt—and beyond that, Tunisia and Iraq, and perhaps more—and helped shape a new Middle East and a safer world. Now that’s hope and change worth believing in.