ABC The Drum Unleashed

by Adam Lockyer

The crisis in Egypt has once again shone a light on the limits of American power or, more precisely, its inability to use its power.

There have always been two strong currents in American foreign policy: that of virtuous crusader for democracy and liberty and that of classical real politik. Generally, the United States has only been able to take decisive action abroad when there has been a confluence between these two traditions.

Besides some salient exceptions (particularly in Central and South America), almost every major American foreign policy initiative has had to reconcile its virtuous instincts with sound realist policy. The United States cast its entry into both world wars as a mission to make the world safe for democracy; the Marshall Plan had both an idealistic and strategic current; and America nominated itself the "leader of the free world" during the Cold War for similarly dualistic objectives. Even the United States' justification for the Iraq War was presented in the language of its historic mission to spread freedom, liberty and democracy in partnership with security and strategic considerations.

As the size and popularity of the Egyptian protests became clear, the world turned their collective eyes towards Washington. It seemed that the 24 hour news channels were dedicating almost as much attention to events in Washington as in Cairo. The question was clear: would the United States back its friend and ally of 30 years, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, or would it follow up on Obama's 2009 Cairo speech with support for the protesters? The answer was not clear and remains unclear.

What is clear, however, is that both President Mubarak and the protestors want the United States' to support their cause. Mubarak, for his part, had a 30 minute telephone conversation with Obama before addressing the Egyptian people. No doubt, Mubarak would have used this opportunity to lobby the American president for continued support. Similarly, the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof reported from Tahrir Square that "dozens of people [surged] around me pleading for the United States to back their calls for democracy."

Many observers have suggested that the opposition's promotion of former IAEA Director General, Mohamed El Baradei, as their unofficial leader was, in no small part, due to his perceived popularity in the West.

President Mubarak had good reason to be confident that Washington would support his position. Mubarak has been Israel's closest friend in the region and his toppling will undoubtedly result in an Egypt that is less affable towards it. In turn, this is likely to heighten Israel's security concerns and put any peace agreement between them and the Palestinians back years, if not decades. Moreover, it is unclear how far and rapid the call for popular rule might radiate out of North Africa and into the wider Middle-East. There have already been reports of popular rumblings in Jordan.

As my colleague at the United States Studies Centre, Tom Switzer, wrote in The Drum, Washington should be careful for what it wishes. It is one thing to promote democracy in place of a hostile Iraqi dictator, it is quite another for friendly governments to topple one-after-the-other.

The Egyptian protestors would have been equally justified in expecting that Washington would support their calls for Mubarak to step aside and for open elections. After all, it was less than two years ago that Obama delivered a speech – in their city – that proclaimed that free-speech, democracy, the rule of law, equality and liberty "are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere."

The division between its moral mission and its strategic interests better explains the United States' delicate response to the crisis in Egypt than the widely cited explanation of it lacking the diplomatic, economic and military capabilities. Many commentators, such as Andrew Quinn writing for Reuters, have suggested that the turmoil in Egypt surprised Washington and highlighted its "limited leverage". However, as Mubarak's telephone conversation and the voices coming from the swarming protesters demonstrate, a firm committed statement of support from the world's largest economic and military power would throw a great deal of momentum behind either side.

Nevertheless, torn between virtue and strategic interests, the Washington has played it coy. A clear statement of support has not been forthcoming for either side. Instead, State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley told Al Jazeera that it was "watching and responding." These lines are calculatedly timid. The United States was waiting to see which way the wind blew.

The United States' position has shifted over the course of the week in reaction to events. President Obama's first address took a bet each way saying that "we are committed to working with the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people." However, as Mubarak's position progressively became increasingly untenable, Washington adjusted its language. It is now publically speaking of an "orderly transition", which means it wants Mubarak to prepare the country for open and free elections. Although this is recognition that the status quo is no longer viable, it remains a far cry from the immediate resignation demanded from the protestors.

The United States has struggled to act decisively to this crisis and this will continue. Spilt between its two great impulses, Washington will continue to muddle through. It will continue to play the hand it gets dealt. Indeed, muddling through the current crisis is probably the soundest course. Too many, too often, place too much weight in always needing "strategic political objectives". While events are so uncertain, throwing their lot in with either side is an unacceptably risky gambit. It is much better to wait and see how events unfold and then respond accordingly.

There is something to be said for muddling through. During the early days of the Second World War, H.G. Wells called upon Winston Churchill and inquired on the progress of the war. Churchill answered that they were "along the lines of our general policy".

"You have a general policy?" asked a surprised Wells.

"Yes," Churchill snapped back, "the K.M.T. policy."

"And what is the K.M.T policy?" enquired Wells.

"It is this," answered Churchill, "Keep Muddling Through."