WASHINGTON -- For those who are prone to be prone to such things, recent events in Egypt are further evidence of declining American global influence. President Hosni Mubarak, having taken a lot of American aid, now seems immune to both American advice and pressure. The protesters, one article complained, didn't even bother to burn our flag. We are seeing, according to some observers, a "post-American Middle East."
Never mind that the protesters are using Western technology to demand individual rights. Or that many of the young, secular bloggers who laid the groundwork for the revolution alternate between Arabic and English and have visited or studied in America. Lay aside the fact that Egyptians in the streets have focused their demands on only two actors, the Egyptian regime and the American government -- not the United Nations or the Arab League or China. In fact, China's response was to remove the word "Egypt" from its Internet search engines and lay low, hoping the storm passes.
Such considerations should not be allowed to detract from our sense of impotence -- a paradoxical tribute to our ambitions. People in Holland or Costa Rica do not celebrate or decry their lack of sway in Egyptian politics. Only Americans feel vindication or guilt at the limits of their power.
Those limits are obvious along the Nile. The outcome of the current confused struggle in Egypt matters greatly to American interests. The emergence of a Sunni version of Iran in Egypt would be a major blow. A democratic transition, even a messy and partial one, might eventually isolate or domesticate the extremists and defuse hatred for America. But the course of events in Egypt is determined by an internal balance of nationalism and religion, fear and hope, that America can only influence on the margins. That is frustrating, but hardly new.
And the limits of a certain American policy approach in the Middle East have never been more obvious. Decades of aiding a military dictator, who presides over a corrupt, unresponsive government, who has managed his economy into stagnation and scarcity, and who has driven most legitimate opposition toward the radical mosque, have not produced stability. There's a reason shahs are sometimes followed by mullahs -- because religious extremism is the opiate of a humiliated people. Who can seriously argue that the denouement in Egypt will be better because Mubarak cannot seem to take a hint and board a plane?