To paraphrase FDR, Hosni Mubarak may be a bastard, but he's our bastard. The Mubarak regime has been a vital ally of the United States. Our military efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere hinge upon the regime's willingness to keep the Suez Canal open to our Navy vessels. And while its rhetoric often runs counter to the Camp David Accords that Egypt signed with Israel in 1979, the U.S. counts on Cairo to keep the peace.
At the same time, it must be hard for the president who ran on a campaign mantra of "change" to sit this one out. The protestors in Egypt have a right to be angry. Thirty years without political reform is an awfully long time. And the scenes of Egyptian hordes bravely defying the state security forces are, for students of history, breathtaking and historic.
But then again, the president must have a healthy fear of the unknown. These are leaderless protests in Cairo, and the outcome is impossible to predict. Some argue that the famous IAEA bureaucrat Mohammed ElBaradei, a self-styled proponent of political reform in Egypt, could become the next president of Egypt. But the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that has officially renounced violence but whose ideology is to blame for radicalism worldwide, is well organized and popular. It could just as easily grab the brass ring.
The truth is, nobody seems to know who's in charge. So, how can Mr. Obama send anything other than mixed signals?
But that does not excuse the fact that his administration was woefully unprepared for this.
For one, the president rejected the Arab reform agenda set forth by his predecessor, George W. Bush. He cut funding for democracy promotion programs and then flew to Egypt in June 2009 for his famous "Cairo Speech" that aimed to reset relations with the region's autocrats and dictators, which had become strained due to the Iraq War, but also because of Bush's policies that pressured those regimes.
This left us without strong allies on the ground in March of last year, when Mubarak flew to Germany for gall bladder surgery. Rumors soon began to surface that the aging dictator was terminally ill. One way or another, succession was going to become an issue. Why didn't the Obama administration swing into action, create contingency plans, and reconnect with more of Egypt's key grassroots leaders?
Until the president's foreign policy advisors get a better handle on the crisis in Egypt, the president has limited tools at his disposal. He can re-assess foreign aid to Egypt. He can call for the regime to stop cutting off internet and cell phone access. He can ask the Egyptian people to refrain from violence. He can even distance himself from Mubarak.
These are all perfectly reasonable responses to the unfolding crisis. And for that, many will give the president high marks. But Americans should know that this was, to some extent, avoidable. As such, those high marks are undeserved.