Obama administration officials say they are not taking sides between President Hosni Mubarak, America's key ally in the Arab world, and the street protesters who purportedly represent a path to democracy in authoritarian Egypt. These officials might even believe what they're saying. But the very assertion of "not taking sides" is itself a tilt away from the all-out support traditionally given by Washington to this Egyptian strongman in recent decades.
The administration's move is a slide toward the unknown. Senior officials have no idea of exactly who these street protesters are, whether the protesters are simply a mob force incapable of organised political action and rule or if more sinister groups hover in the shadows, waiting to grab power and turn Egypt into an anti-Western, anti-Israeli bastion.
The White House has called upon its intelligence agents and diplomats to provide answers, but only best guesses are forthcoming. No one, no matter how well informed about Egypt, can divine what will happen to power within Egypt if the protesters compel concessions from the Mubarak regime or, on the other hand, if Mubarak hangs onto power by using brutal force.
So some administration officials are thinking that for all the risks of losing a good ally in Mubarak, it might well be better to get "on the right side of history." Some U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers have long harboured the view that corrupt, inept and inefficient Arab friends simply cannot retain power forever. They believe President Carter should have trusted his initial instincts and pushed the Shah of Iran toward reforms. In this way, the shah might have become viable or, failing that, Washington could have allied with moderates who might have succeeded him.
But those officials who think this way forget their history. When President George W. Bush made his push for democracy in Arab lands, he ended up with Hamas terrorists winning a democratic election and ruling the Gaza Strip. And this "democratic" thinking also overlooks the fact that Bush's pressing for democracy in Lebanon helped open the doors to power for the radical Hezbollah group. And yes, the anti-shah revolution in 1979 started out with moderates in power, only to be pushed aside by the clerical radicals who still rule today.
In rotten regimes that fall to street mobs, the historical pattern has been moderates followed by new dictators. Just remember the model of the Bolsheviks, a tiny group of extremely well-organised communists, wresting control away from the great majority of discontented and disorganised Russians in 1917.
Judge for yourself whether the Obama team is leaning toward the protesters. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs reiterated that Egypt remains "a strong ally" but then stressed support for the "universal rights" of the Egyptian people.
"This isn't about support or opposition to leaders," he said, "it's about support for universal rights of assembly and expression. We criticise actions that restrict those values," Gibbs told ABC News.
Also on Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters: "We support the universal rights of the Egyptian people, including the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. And we urge the Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including on social media sites." She continued: "We believe strongly that the Egyptian government has an important opportunity at this moment in time, to implement political, economic and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people."
In sum, she and the administration are saying to Mubarak: Don't use brute power and force to stop the protesters, and don't interfere with the protesters doing their protesting. This message is contrary to the position of the Mubarak government, which has outlawed such protests and appears to be blocking Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools. In other words, the Obama team is urging conciliation and, de facto, concessions to those who may well end up advocating far more than simple political and economic reforms.
The stakes are sky high. Egypt is the linchpin to peace in the Middle East. So long as Egypt refrains from warring against Israel, other Arab states cannot take military action by themselves. So long as Cairo remains pro-Western, it serves as an anchor for other such friendly governments. It occupies a central economic position in the region and a vital transportation hub through the Suez Canal.
Certainly, most Arab governments friendly to Washington need to make reforms. But to do so at a moment of weakness, to be seen as bending to mobs, however peaceful and moderate they look now, could open the floodgates -- in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
The overriding point is that no knowledgeable diplomat, no secret agent or Harvard professor can speak with confidence about where turmoil will lead in poor and repressed countries like Egypt. This White House will have to be forgiven for not knowing whether to ride the tiger or help put him back in a cage -- for a brief time at least.
Leslie H. Gelb is President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Distributed by the New York Times Syndicate