Cliff May

The upheaval in Egypt would be a dilemma for any American administration. But the policies President Obama has followed over the past two years have made his task more challenging in three ways.

The signature policy of Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, was the “Freedom Agenda.” It was, in my view, flawed in both conception and implementation (a bit more on that in a moment) but the fact is Bush did push for democratic reforms around the world – including Egypt -- and that did contribute to the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon in 2005, as well as Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 and, of course, the Purple Revolution of Iraq in 2005 and perhaps, too, the Green Revolution in Iran which began in 2009 and may not be entirely extinguished yet.

If the Obama administration had maintained that policy, the Lotus Revolution in Egypt – and the Jasmine Revolution that immediately preceded it in Tunisia – might have been seen as waves on an American-generated tide.

Instead, Obama rejected Bush’s policy. He took the view, shared by most European leaders, that in such regions as the Middle East, stability trumps liberty. As a result, those marching in the streets now do not view Obama as a proponent of hope and change.

Second: Less than two years ago, President Obama chose Cairo as the venue for his pivotal speech to the Arab and Muslim worlds. That sent the message that he saw Egypt as the capital of the Arab and Muslim worlds. His speech was primarily an apology for America’s past sins. He did not emphatically appeal to the region’s rulers to reform. As a result, any calls he now makes in favor of reform ring hollow.

Third: When Iranians rose up against the tyrannical regime that has ruled them for more than 30 years -- when they marched in the streets chanting, “Obama, are you with us or against us?”— the President mostly held his tongue, reluctant to jeopardize his policy of “outreach” to Iran’s rulers. Can Obama now be more supportive of Egyptians as they confront a regime that, while authoritarian, is nowhere near as oppressive and brutal as that in Tehran?

Everything above is grist for the historian’s mill. For policy makers, the question that matters is this: What does the President of the United States do now?

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.