In early February of last year, Barack Obama faced one of the most difficult choices of his presidency. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, calling for an end to the repressive 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak. Would the United States stand squarely with the protesters, so many yearning for a better life, or look to give Mubarak time, out of respect for his serving American interests, notably his long honoring of the peace treaty with Israel?
The president sided with the protesters, letting Mubarak and the rest of the world know the transition “must begin now.” The choice ran counter to more experienced voices among his advisers, according to Helene Cooper and Robert F. Worth of the New York Times, who relayed the moment in their reporting this week. The president found himself confronting his own words. Would he dampen the call for hope and change in Egypt, let alone across the Arab world?
For its part, the Mitt Romney campaign has pointed to the recent turmoil in Muslim countries, triggered by an American-made video, resulting in the deaths of four American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, as evidence of weakness at the core of the president’s choice. The Romney team suggests that all of this trouble could have been avoided.
Actually, trouble likely would have followed either course the president took, discontent surely surfacing after a White House decision to remain patient with Mubarak. In this instance, the choice wasn’t to control or more effectively manage events. The measure would be the larger arc, the president joining the movement toward freedom, transparency and greater opportunity.
The lesson has been in the complications, the clash of ideals and realities, foreign policy so often about what you actually can achieve. It is one thing to welcome change in Egypt, Tunisia, even deploy military forces off and above Libya. When the Arab Spring showed signs in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia brought its influence and forces to the crackdown. Remember, Bahrain is home to a key American naval base. More, the Saudis feared Iran would exploit any change.
What to do in Syria? An effective intervention has proved elusive, the international community facing its own divisions, aware of the stakes if the conflict deepens and spreads, the White House probing for an opening that may not soon appear.
In his address to the United Nations, President Obama spoke about the importance of acting through international institutions, reflecting hard lessons about the United States acting alone, essentially. Yet these institutions have their obvious shortcomings, too. He also stressed the virtues and responsibilities of free speech. He reinforced the message he sent in siding with the Cairo masses. Amid the inevitable messiness, the first principles of the United States must be clearly visible.