Globe Editorial

On Egypt, Obama played hand well, if not always steadily

February 15, 2011

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FOR HIS performance during the people-power uprising in Egypt, President Obama ought to be judged the way an Olympic diver is: not only by execution but also by the dive’s degree of difficulty. Because he inherited from his last four predecessors a close collaboration with the now-deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Obama had to be both lucky and skillful to avoid a disastrous belly-flop.

For sure, there were too many shifting messages from Obama and other US officials. But until Mubarak’s resignation on Friday, policy makers could not be sure where events were headed. If Obama had openly encouraged the protesters early on and the regime crushed the movement in a bloody crackdown, America would look like it had deceived the democracy movement and alienated a crucial ally.

In the end, Obama managed to place America on the side of Egypt’s democracy movement. House Speaker John Boehner hit the right note on “Meet the Press’’ Sunday when he said the administration handled “a very difficult situation’’ about as well as it could be handled. Boehner’s fellow Republicans should be similarly realistic about Obama’s performance.

The only obvious blunder Obama made was to send a former US ambassador to Egypt, Frank Wisner, to tell Mubarak that it was time to step aside. The respected Wisner was chosen because of his friendship with Mubarak. But his lobbyist-law firm, Patton Boggs, had Mubarak’s regime as a client, a connection that created a conflict of interest. Fortunately, events — and Obama’s own good judgment — overtook Wisner’s mission.

The really hard part comes now. Obama will have to walk a fine line, trusting that the youth movement for democracy now cresting in the Arab world and Iran will not be hijacked by new tyrants or theocrats, and that US interests will be compatible with the new wave of popular sovereignty. Obama’s own experience as a boy in dictatorial Indonesia and his understanding of the values of justice and nonviolence preached by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. ought to stand him in good stead.

His job now is to persuade the millions casting off corrupt and repressive regimes that America will be with them, not with its old partners. And he will have to convince Americans that democracy abroad is in their best interest, even if the United States can’t contrive an outcome as easily as when it backed autocrats.

Americans old enough to remember the Cold War era probably felt a twinge of powerlessness as the events in Egypt unfolded: This new uprising wasn’t about us, and our president didn’t try to make it a test of US influence. He was right to let events unfold while slowly increasing the pressure on Mubarak. Sometimes, the quietest moves are the most effective, and Americans can feel confident that, in Egypt’s revolution, their country was ultimately on the right side of history.