|President Barack Obama tours the Great Sphinx of Giza and the Pyramid of Khafre in June 2009 [Getty]
Pity poor Barack Obama. Over the course of less than two weeks - a period which must seem to him like an eternity - he and his administration have struggled to form some sort of coherent, forward-looking response to the events taking place in Egypt.
I need not recount here the dizzying path this evolution has taken in just a few days – one which began with Hillary Clinton, the stolid and redoubtable Secretary of State, extolling the Egyptian regime as stable; and with the loquacious Vice President Biden asserting that Egyptian President Mubarak was no dictator.
At its worst, the administration has seemed silly and clueless, mouthing formulations which have already clearly been overtaken by events. Even at its very best, the administration has been vulnerable to the legitimate accusation that it is perpetually a half-step behind reality.
Although perhaps badly advised at times, President Obama and his national security team are neither stupid nor evil. To understand how they can seem so stunningly inept on an issue of such importance, it is necessary to understand something about the nature of current American politics, and of the brief but already complicated history of this administration’s policies in the Middle East.
It may be hard to remember now - but it all started out so well, so hopefully. Swept into office in January 2009, buoyed by the uplifting rhetoric with which he had captured the imagination of America and, indeed, much of the world, the new American president soon turned the bright sunlight of his personality toward US relations with the Muslim world. In Cairo, in June 2009, he laid out a new agenda and a new framework for those relations. To the extent that the speech focused on specifics at all, those specifics generally did not stray far from previous US positions.
What was different in this speech, however, was its tone - one which suggested respect and empathy for the people of the region, and which promised adherence to high principle.
That adherence to principle, Obama made clear, would not always reflect the desires or perceived interests of the Arabs or the Muslims: He was not trying to pander. Support for the legitimate rights of Muslims, for example, would not negate continued strong US support for Israel, whose creation, he reminded, was the result of international efforts to secure the protection of the Jews.
If there were an overall promise which one might extract from the words spoken that day, it was that under this president, the US would identify its long-term interests in a manner consistent with justice, with international law, and with a decent regard for the legitimate rights of Muslims. And the one specific issue to which President Obama tied this principled approach was continued Israeli colonisation of the Palestinian West Bank. Denouncing Israeli settlements as both illegal and illegitimate - and as an impediment to the just peace he sought for both Israelis and Palestinians - the American president firmly insisted that their construction should cease.
What, one might ask, was he thinking? His demand was in every sense correct. But was he completely unmindful of how difficult it would be to enforce such a demand? And once having made it, did he not anticipate the consequences of his failure to follow through? Or did he somehow believe, as rhetoricians are wont to do, that the very nobility and high-minded sincerity of his words gave them an independent stature, quite apart from any practical ability to actually implement them?
Whatever the case, the delicate filigree of President Obama’s rhetoric and his subsequent efforts to implement a settlement freeze and to promote genuine peace negotiations quickly ran into the buzz-saw of American domestic politics. While Obama tried to exert pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, AIPAC, the pro-Israel US lobbying group, was garnering the signatures of an overwhelming majority in both houses of Congress for an “open letter” - advocating that the administration cease and desist from overt criticism of Israel.
In an increasingly personal dispute between Obama and Netanyahu, it eventually became apparent which of the two had the real strength on Capitol Hill, and which did not.
At the same time, a seemingly sensible White House effort to free regional democratisation efforts from the doctrinal inflexibility of the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda”, by which the US would stress the “differing paths” to be followed by different countries at different stages of social and political development, instead became the basis of a cynical excuse to largely ignore human rights and democracy, in favour of seemingly more practical aspects of the American national-security agenda in the Middle East.
That agenda focused on the supposed need to promote a moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the related need to isolate Hamas; and it placed a priority on countering a resurgent, nuclearising Iran and its “proxies” in Syria and Lebanon. Reacting to, and frequently sharing in the domestic political hysteria over these largely misunderstood threats - and thus over-valuing the utility of the Mubarak regime in marshalling a de-facto regional coalition to counter them, the Obama administration has been all too glad to put high-minded principle aside, and to focus on current tactics at the expense of seemingly nebulous long-term threats to US interests in the region – the threat, that is, posed precisely by America’s autocratic allies themselves.
Fast-forward, then, to the present, and to Tahrir Square. The exigencies of decency and of justice might seem very clear-cut when one views brave protesters advocating peacefully for their dignity and their rights in the face of pro-regime thuggery, demanding nothing more than to freely choose those who would presume to lead them.
Viewed through the prism of American politics, though, this seemingly Manichean struggle between the forces of light and of darkness becomes grossly distorted. The administration’s deliberations are freighted not only with the baggage of a thoroughly outdated grasp of regional politics and of what can realistically be achieved through the US’ faithful but unseemly – and now critically watchful – allies; they also suffer from an almost irrational American fear of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
In the overheated imaginations of some, the latter hang like a threatening incubus over the proceedings, awaiting the opportunity to hijack whatever democratic process might be unleashed in Cairo - and to set in motion a realignment of regional political forces to the clear detriment of Israel.
Thus far during the crisis, the administration’s progress has been noteworthy not only for its halting uncertainty - but also for the amazing degree to which it has garnered bi-partisan domestic political support, particularly in Congress. This is not an accident. The reactive, fear-driven mental path reflected in policy statements from the White House, more important for what they do not say than for what they do, has not been confined to Obama’s inner circle, or indeed to the administration; in fact, it largely reflects the halting evolution of thinking in Washington’s political class as a whole.
But make no mistake. Many of those who currently support Obama faute de mieux will pivot smartly to blame him for “losing Egypt” as soon as things go wrong. Just let the “political transition” advocated by the Obama White House begin to come off the rails; just let the spectre of political Islam begin to come to the fore - and any pro-democracy advocacy on Obama’s part will be immediately attacked as ideologically driven folly. Obama, conditioned by the hard experience of the past two years, knows this very well.
It is worth noting that despite what must have been a rather heavy work schedule, senior White House officials took the time last Wednesday evening for a conference call with prominent US supporters of Israel. The latter, according to news reports, were concerned over remarks by Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs, suggesting a possible legitimate political role for the Ikhwan; I was not a party to that conversation - but one supposes that government officials did not use it as an opportunity to extol unqualified support for democratic norms.
In this environment, the Obamaites will be sorely tempted to seize upon whatever half-measures may present themselves to preserve some skeleton of Mubarak’s clique, while appeasing the insistent protesters outside. A process which offers scope for clever manipulators like Omar Suleiman to blunt and deflect the people’s aspirations may seem enticing - even if it carries the hidden risk of a more widespread and socially destructive revolution later on. US influence in this crisis is clearly limited; but Obama should resist using such influence as he and America’s western allies may have in support of pro-regime trickery.
Winston Churchill famously said that: “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing - after they have exhausted all other possibilities.” That is the process we are watching now. I do believe the Obama administration will eventually come out more or less in the right place. We will just have to be patient while they get there.
Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA’s Clandestine Service. He was Director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Centre from 2004 to 2006.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.