Obama would have shared the blame if Egypt's crisis was extended and bloody and hurt U.S. interests in the region, so he deserves credit for whatever he did to achieve more positive results. Let's hope the lessons the administration learned will better equip it for the next crisis. More tests are bound to come.
It may be months before we know with certainty what's next for Egypt, but it's not too early to consider the performance of the Obama administration in its greatest foreign policy test to date. Its grades are mixed.
President Obama recognized the importance of Egypt by making Cairo the site of his first major foreign address. Egyptian sources say the speech was well received, especially by the young, but Obama failed to follow up.
While his predecessor, George W. Bush, was more vocal in his calls for greater democracy in the Middle East, the Obama administration pushed for reform mostly in private conversations. That let down those Obama had inspired.
In Egypt, Obama's personal popularity dropped sharply in the months after his big speech. The administration also reduced its contacts with democracy supporters in Egypt. Thus, it didn't see the revolution coming. The CIA apparently didn't have the right Facebook friends.
Granted, nobody could have known that a suicide in Tunisia and the social networks of educated young Egyptians could so quickly blossom into a nationwide revolt. The success of the demonstrations surprised even the organizers.
But the potential for instability in Egypt has been known for years. The Egypt Working Group, a bipartisan collection of outside experts in Washington, has been sounding the alarm about rising tensions for months.
When the demonstrations began, the administration was caught flat-footed and tone-deaf. Initial reassurances from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice-President Joe Biden that the Mubarak regime was stable alienated the demonstrators in Tahrir Square.
The administration recovered its balance, and Obama mostly found the right tone for the situation. Obama kept in touch with Mubarak, but steadily distanced the U.S. from his repressive policies. In ever-stronger terms, he urged the Egyptian government to grant the reforms the demonstrators wanted and to refrain from using force to stop the protests.
The connections between the administration and key players in Egypt were strong and important. Obama, Clinton, Biden and Defense Secretary Robert Gates kept in regular contact with Egypt's leaders, pushing in private as well as in public for a nonviolent resolution to the conflict.
We cannot know all the factors that led to the decision of Egypt's military leaders to eventually side with the demonstrators and pressure Mubarak into resigning, but we suspect diplomatic entreaties from Washington helped push in that direction.
The missteps and vacillation seen in Washington's response reflected divisions within the administration, press reports indicate, pitting older foreign policy "realists" in State and Defense against younger White House aides more sympathetic with the demonstrators.
In the end, Obama came out on the right side, both in his ringing statements supporting the aspirations of the Egyptian people and in getting safely away from Mubarak's sinking ship well before it went down.
That such profound change happened so quickly is a tribute first to the Egyptian people. This revolution was about them, not about us or about Obama. But Obama would have shared the blame if Egypt's crisis was extended and bloody and hurt U.S. interests in the region, so he deserves credit for whatever he did to achieve more positive results.
Let's hope the lessons the administration learned will better equip it for the next crisis. The flames of freedom are spreading through the autocracies of the Middle East, so more tests are bound to come.
-- MetroWest Daily News (Mass.)