If we're lucky this time around, we'll avoid the who-lost-Egypt debate. Hosni Mubarak's decision to step down has pre-empted a catastrophic crisis for Egypt and for American interests. We may not be adept at manipulating Middle Eastern politics; but we're sure experts at beating ourselves up.
Commentators and analysts have argued forcefully that Barack Obama's administration failed to anticipate the current crisis, blew an opportunity by failing to push Mubarak to make significant reforms during the early days of the upheaval, and risked being on the wrong side of history by not being assertive in trying to force Mubarak's removal. But the administration was smart to keep its distance from this crisis.
If the last eight years in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran -- and the previous 800 years in the Middle East -- demonstrate anything, it is that great powers cannot micromanage the affairs of small tribes. And when they try, they almost always fare badly.
There is much to quibble with in the administration's approach -- too many daily political weather reports about the current situation in Cairo, not enough initial coordination about what the administration should say, and too many presidential statements.
But on balance, the administration has played a bad hand pretty well. The cards the president were dealt were largely beyond his control. Hammering him now completely ignores the reality that U.S. policy made its bed in Egypt decades ago, and now the administration -- forced to sleep in it as it confronts the current crisis -- has few good options.
For decades, the United States cut a devil's bargain with a number of Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes. And let's be clear here, Hosni Mubarak isn't Saddam Hussein: He's not a sociopath or a mass murderer. Indeed, until last month, I guarantee you, any number of U.S. officials, including the president and the secretary of state, chummed it up with him in Washington and Cairo.
The bargain the United States cut was quite simple: In exchange for helping it carry out what it believed to be sound American policies on peace and war, it gave Mubarak, the monarchs of Jordan, the Saudis, and even Saddam Hussein (for a brief period during the 1980s) a pass on domestic governance.