The article originally appeared on TomDispatch.com.
From Egypt to Pakistan, February 2011 will be remembered as a month unusually full of the embarrassments of empire. Americans were enthralled by a spectacle of liberty in which we felt we should somehow be playing a part. Here were popular movements toward self-government, which might once have looked to the United States as an exemplar, springing up all across North Africa and the Middle East. Why did they not look up to us now?
The answer became clearer with every equivocal word of the Obama administration, and every false step it took in trying to manage the crisis. A person suffers embarrassment when something true about himself emerges in spite of reasonable efforts to conceal it. It is the same with nations. Sovereign nations are abstract entities, of course—they cannot have feelings as people do—but there are times when they would blush if they could.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was weakened and finally brought down by nonviolent popular actions that started in Cairo and spread to Alexandria, Suez and many other cities. At first, Mubarak took a dictator’s prerogative and named his successor. Soon after, he changed his mind and declined to step down. At last, he gave in to the unrelenting demands of the people and pressure from the army.
Throughout the eighteen days of upheaval, Washington spoke of the need for an “orderly transition.” President Obama and his advisers seemed to side with the Egyptian demonstrators vaguely and sentimentally, yet they never sought a connection with them, not even through a figure of international renown like Mohamed ElBaradei, the former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency who earned a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. The United States took extreme care not to offend Mubarak. There was a period of perhaps three days after Obama dispatched Frank Wisner (a former ambassador and personal friend of Mubarak) as special envoy to consult with the dictator when the world was given to understand that America was planning the longest of farewells.
Such was the American response to an expression of popular will that had no precedent. For in the end, the protest swept up millions of demonstrators: by some estimates nearly a quarter of Egypt’s population of 81 million, in a mass action whose exhilaration could be shared by all who watched. The crowd in Tahrir Square had none of the poisonous quality of a mob. Even the most respectable citizens—doctors, lawyers, teachers, shopkeepers, women as well as men—were drawn in little by little, visiting the demonstrations after work, throwing in their lot and finally staying overnight in the square.
President Obama sanctified the process only after it was sealed by success. He said, in a telling phrase, that it had been a “privilege” for him to watch “history taking place.” To add, as Obama did, that the result belonged to the Egyptian people alone was fitting; yet the protesters could respond with perfect justice that they owed nothing to American help. Was this degree of detachment inevitable?
Look into the order of events a little more closely and you see a picture of the contradictions of American policy over the last half-century. On day one of the protest, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pronounced the Egyptian government “stable”; two days later, on a news program, Vice President Joe Biden refused to call Mubarak a dictator; the following day, President Obama said he had spoken to Mubarak and “urged him to meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”