Whatever may happen in the hours after I write this column, two things are certain: The next chapter in the magnificent and ancient civilization of the Nile will be yet to be known. And the role that America plays in Egypt's great, unfolding story remains also in doubt.
I well understand the Obama administration's uncertain message in the first week of the Egyptian tumult. We have always been conflicted in such moments. America's founding idea has pointed to our ultimate objective -- domestic and foreign:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
This founding principle of liberty was intended -- when it was written -- not just for Protestant former Englishmen, but for all men of all faiths -- white, black, brown, yellow.
And yet, as America emerged into the world, the practical considerations of protecting our freedom and interests have often driven us not to champion those principles for others.
Sometimes we have fought magnificently for the rights of others; sometimes we have championed the local strongman to advance our vital interests. And one would have to be conspicuously naive to the ways of the world to condemn -- as an absolute -- the propriety of American foreign policy when it acts expediently for American interests.
The historic dilemma presents itself vividly now in Egypt.
Revolutions -- French, Russian, Chinese, Iranian -- have a typical trajectory. They are won on the street with the masses calling for freedom; they are stolen afterward by the best-organized, usually most malicious thugs (Napoleon, Lenin, Mao, the Mullahs).
Once in a while -- as in our revolution -- the cry of the street slogans become the principles of the government that follows. But usually not. If the revolution in Egypt results in the fall of the existing governmental order, what are the chances that the people will be subsequently governed by a more just system? And what are the chances that America's interests will be advanced by that result?
Will the Suez Canal no longer be open and safe for its vast commerce? Will the Middle East tilt further in the evil direction of radical Islamist forces? Will our ally Israel be further isolated from its neighbors and its right to exist?
And if the Suez Canal is threatened by an anti-Western regime, is it likely that we will find ourselves forced to occupy and protect the canal for world commerce?
Whither to go on, Egypt is not so much an ideological or partisan matter. There are former Reagan, Bush (1 and 2) and Clinton foreign affairs officials on both sides of the divide. Even hardheaded realists recognize the political implications of a people's ideas and faith. And even some idealists recognize that certain laudatory goals are not yet attainable.
The big questions on Egypt are mere factual ones: What will follow? Can we influence the decision? Can we avoid paying a price for not acting now? Presidencies, kingly reigns, premierships, dictatorships -- even if they last for decades -- are often remembered in history for one decision or one phrase uttered in a moment of confusion and doubt. ("Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall"). Some men get it right; others get it wrong.
President Obama may be facing one of those fateful moments now. Of course, if the path were obvious, it would not be fateful. But history and current conditions would suggest that the odds of the revolution resulting in a Western-oriented democracy that serves the interests of the Egyptian people are slim.
Providing public and private support of Mubarak and the provision of help to keep some semblance of the status quo (perhaps in the form of an army-led regime) is likely to serve both our immediate geopolitical interests and our ability to shape that regime in the interest of the Egyptian people.
President Obama had a chance in 2009 to respond with strong support for the Iranian green revolution -- but his almost silence crushed the hope of many young Iranians and surely aided (inadvertently) the hated enemy Iranian regime.
Now, the president risks getting it wrong in the other direction: undercutting a friendly regime by sincere but ill considered support for a revolution that is more likely to result in a government adverse to our -- and the Egyptian people's -- interests. Note that a recent Pew poll of the Egyptian public disclosed that they preferred "Islamists" over "modernizers" by 59 percent to 27 percent (cited by Barry Rubin at the GLORIA Center website). Instant democracy, anyone?
Also, and importantly, if America undercuts its ally of 30 years, we would be seen as feckless -- and thus we would undermine the value of our support for allies current and future.
As Ari Shavit wrote in Israel's leading liberal paper Haaretz: "(The failure to support) Mubarak symbolizes the betrayal of every strategic ally in the Third World. Throughout Asia, Africa and South America, leaders are now looking at what is going on between Washington and Cairo.
Everyone grasps the message: America's word is worthless; an alliance with America is unreliable; American (sic) has lost it. A result of this understanding will be a turn toward China, Russia and regional powers such as Iran, Turkey and Brazil. The second result of this insight will be a series of international conflagrations that will result from the loss of America's deterrent power."
So, for both our own reputation and our interests in the Middle East and beyond: Support Mubarak. Down the revolution. Up orderly progress.