Morality tales make for decent theater but lousy diplomacy. In the perfect world that some Americans seem to inhabit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should have thrown Hosni Mubarak under the proverbial bus within minutes of the first street protest in Cairo. The protesters in Egypt, after all, looked very much like the brave crowds that gathered in Tiananmen Square more than two decades ago, or the earnest dissidents who so recently demanded liberation from the half-crazed mullahs who rule Iran. It was hard not to sympathize with them.
Mrs. Clinton and the Obama administration wisely avoided giving into sentiment during the opening days of what clearly is a full-fledged revolution in Egypt. Even as commentators on the nightly cable shows pleaded with Washington to accept the inevitable by ditching Mr. Mubarak, Mrs. Clinton managed to put the practical matter of national interest ahead of romantic idealism. The U.S. and Israel have had good reason to support Mr. Mubarak, for he supported his nation’s peace treaty with Israel and helped to isolate the rogue Hamas regime in Gaza. Mr. Mubarak has been far from a perfect ally, but he has been useful on life-and-death issues in a volatile region of the world. In the imperfect, practical world of international relations, Mr. Mubarak’s behavior towards the U.S. and Israel merited some dispensation, however distasteful that may seem to purists.
So Mrs. Clinton had no small assignment last week. By acknowledging the grievances of impoverished, frustrated Egyptians, Mrs. Clinton signaled the administration’s ambivalence about Mr. Mubarak’s long tenure. By asking Mr. Mubarak to implement reform-a laughable goal now, and perhaps even then, but not an unworthy request-Mrs. Clinton made it clear that Washington still regarded him as Egypt’s legitimate leader.
All that has changed now, and more surely will change in the coming hours and days. Mr. Mubarak’s days as Egypt’s president are numbered, and now the U.S. and Israel must prepare for an uncertain relationship with this important Arab nation.
In looking back, however, nobody can accuse Mrs. Clinton and the administration she represents of abandoning an ally. And nobody can say that she was blind to the passion and idealism that emboldened ordinary Egyptians to demand an end to Mr. Mubarak’s rule.
Mrs. Clinton, like most of us, lives in an imperfect world. She understood that reality and, to her credit, acted and reacted accordingly. Not an easy task, but carried out as well as could be expected.