Barack Obama, the man of promises, flickered to life last week. Packing his bags to leave the Middle East, and perhaps the White House as well, the U.S. president suddenly returned to what he was supposed to be: the leader of the free world heralding change and "yes we can."
After two years of letting the Middle East down, after inexplicable foot-dragging in the region that threatens world peace the most, Obama appeared in all his glory. It was neither another useless military invasion nor meddling on behalf of another despot, but the right intervention at the right time for a right and just goal.
It's very easy to criticize him about how his country supported a dictator for three decades, how it abandoned the dictator when he weakened, how it continues to support other dictatorships in the region while there is no way of knowing what will come of the Tahrir revolution. These are empty words. Recognizing the limits of power, Obama couldn't have done anything to topple President Hosni Mubarak before the Egyptian people were ready for it, and he couldn't have done anything to save Mubarak, whose fate was sealed by his people.
Even if the worst scenario happens (which is doubtful ) and the Muslim Brotherhood rises to power in Egypt, the United States will be perceived as having stood in the right place without inflaming the hatred against it. The Muslim Brotherhood will have to remember this, and with them the masses of Egyptians, Arabs and Muslims.
It's impossible not to be reminded of Obama's Cairo speech and to cite its key sentence: "I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world." A year and a half after it was delivered, the speech has turned into action. The president of the United States can no longer be accused of making empty speeches and hollow promises. His stance with the demonstrators is indeed a new beginning. It won't immediately erase the burning hatred for America, but it will echo for a long time among the Arab peoples, who will remember how Obama acted at this decisive moment.
"Quiet panic" is underway now in Washington and Jerusalem, in the words of two senior writers for The Economist, Peter David and David Landau, whose fascinating conversation was carried on the magazine's website over the weekend. It's understandable. But driven by this quiet panic, Washington, unlike Jerusalem, has done the right thing. While Jerusalem is talking only about the dangers, Obama got on the back of the galloping Egyptian camel and made the most of the chance to ride it. Now we can only wait and see what grows out of Egypt's February revolution; we can also see how the U.S. president continues his momentum for democratization in the Middle East.
But here another dictatorship is hiding behind the only democracy in the Middle East. Here another people is living without freedom and rights. Here other demonstrators are shot by the authorities and trampled by settlers. Ahead of his time, the founding father of this people, Yasser Arafat, proposed his own "million man march" on Jerusalem. It hasn't happened yet, but it can, and it had better not, because it will end in blood. That's why the United States must lead a change in this people's fate as well. It can do it.
As a pragmatic president, imbued with ideology but not a romantic, Obama must draw his own conclusions about Egypt: that dictatorships ultimately fall, that the American and Israeli interest is not to get caught in the turmoil that could spin out of control, and that the world's masses of Muslims and Arabs will continue to watch how America treats its closest ally.
Israel is not Egypt. It is (still ) a democracy for its citizens, and the alliance with it is deeply rooted in American public opinion. Precisely for that reason, the United States must act more decisively in the two countries' common interest: to be accepted in this boiling region. Last week the U.S. president took a historic first step in that direction. Israel should have been happy with Obama's behavior. An America accepted by Arab peoples is also good for Israel. This step must not be the last.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now