A young Egyptian journalist named Merette Ibrahim has come to question visiting Defense Secretary Bob Gates at a roundtable discussion. She’s passionately idealistic about Egypt’s new democracy, and you might think she would be enthusiastic about President Obama, who supports the political revolution underway here. But she isn’t: She says that Egyptians find Obama and his policies confusing.
Welcome to a growing club. This is a president who promotes change but is failing to articulate it in a way that would convince young Arabs. The Egyptian journalists I met here cited these contradictions: Obama is against military intervention in Libya until he’s for it; he supports Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak until he says it’s time for him to resign immediately; he promises a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations but delivers nothing.
There’s a logic to Obama’s positions, but it’s not easy to explain to an Arab world caught up in the throes of a revolution. It may be, as his aides argue, that Obama is being deliberately low-key because he wants to keep America out of the narrative. But this quietism isn’t working very well. What Obama is achieving, instead, is a fuzzy narrative. He seems to be bending to history, rather than shaping it.
The best outsider’s comment I’ve heard about the scope of change comes from Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, of all people. In response to my question Thursday, he likened the convulsions shaking the Arab world to the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I or the end of the French mandate in the Levant after World War II.
Now, think about that analogy for a moment: What’s the comparable fallen empire whose client states are now in retreat? Why, that would seem to be America. The regimes that have collapsed so far have been aligned with American hegemony. As the revolution spreads to Syria and hopefully Iran, this formula may change. But Barak’s historical analogy should worry Obama.
It’s not too late for Obama to seize this remarkable moment and shape it through his leadership. Here are some of the things I wish he would say and do in coming weeks, so that my Egyptian journalist colleagues will understand America’s role better:
l First, the president should do everything he can to help the Egyptian revolution succeed. This is the cornerstone of positive change, and if it disintegrates into political and economic chaos, it will be a tragic setback. Egypt badly needs two things right now to avoid the ditch into which revolutions historically fall: a broad program of economic assistance to avoid the crash that’s almost inevitable, otherwise; and security help (things like police training) to keep post-revolutionary disorder in check.
Cairo seems fragile. Tourism is off 75 percent, police are in disarray, and trash is piling up again near Tahrir Square. An apartment building in the Garden City neighborhood that used to keep its front door open now locks it each night. In dealing with these problems, America should work through its allies, who have cleaner hands.
l Second, Obama shouldn’t be shy about defending America’s friends, even when they are conservative monarchies and have lots of oil. The United Arab Emirates may not be a perfect place, but it’s a lot freer and more progressive than Iran, say, or Russia or China. Saudi Arabia has its problems, but it isn’t an Iran-style menace, either. Encouraging change doesn’t mean throwing a stick of dynamite into the oil barrel and blowing up the world economy.
l Third, Obama should encourage the anti-Gaddafi coalition to shift the Libya war from a high-visibility military campaign, with screaming fighter-bombers, to a covert paramilitary effort conducted mostly in the shadows. Think of the intelligence-led campaign to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan. Arabs want Gaddafi out, but they don’t want another Iraq in the process.
l Finally, Obama should go to the Middle East and embrace this moment. I understand his desire to stay out of the limelight, but it’s proving to be a mistake. This is a world-historical event, as powerful as the fall of the Berlin Wall, and one for which Obama’s whole life and experience have prepared him. He shouldn’t play rope-a-dope with history. He should go to Cairo, and Bahrain and Damascus, too, if he can. He should listen to what people say — and speak to them, in his authentic, powerful and necessary American voice.