The Egyptian revolution, even for those who believe the Obama administration mishandled key elements of it, provides a useful case study of why governing through a crisis is more challenging that commentating on one.
Consider the options the administration faced during the 18 days that shook the Arab world.
Early on in the uprising, the administration faced this decision: Should the U.S. send signals of support for Mubarak in the hope that his regime would not fall and, assuming it did not, help ensure that we retain strong relations with Mubarak? Or should the U.S. express solidarity with a movement that was aligned with American ideals and that was growing more powerful by the day?
Some people, like the estimable George Shultz, believe we should have practiced quiet diplomacy toward the Mubarak regime as it was weakening. Whatever tough message we wanted to send the Egyptian president should have been done sotto voce, through back channels. The reason, Shultz told Newt Gingrich, is that American allies would be alienated by our turning on a regime we had supported for decades.
On the other side of the ledger is the argument that for America to remain silent was a de facto endorsement of the Mubarak regime, which would alienate the pro-democracy forces that were sweeping Egypt and with whom we would eventually need to align.
Should President Obama have offered real-time commentary on events in the hope of shaping them? Or should the president have remained silent in order to protect him from saying things that, once events settle down, might compromise the standing of the United States? Should the president speak out in order to show leadership — or remain mute in order to show prudence?
Should our posture toward the Egyptian military have been one of strong encouragement and support — or should our words have contained threats of a cut-off of aid if the army turned on its own people? Is the threat of a cut-off of military aid more inclined to move the Egyptian military in our direction or more inclined to alienate it?
These decisions and many more were faced by the Obama administration during the past few weeks. Some judgments may seem more obvious than others. But none of them are easy, particularly when events are fluid, when powerful crosscurrents are colliding, when allies offer competing counsel, and when information is incomplete and often wrong.
Such is life in the White House during a crisis. Sometimes you make the right decision and things turn out badly; sometimes you make the wrong decision and things turn out fine. In the end, the degree of difficulty doesn’t really matter. Results do.