Independent's Eye by Joe Gandelman

When thousands of Egyptians poured out onto Cairo's streets in protest on the January 25 "Day of Rage," the political explosion rocked the region and shook President Hosni Mubarak's government to its foundations. It set off a chain-reaction of follow-up street confrontations -- and underscored three realities.

Egypt Hosni Mubarak Barack Obama Hillary Clinton

John Cole / Scranton Times-Tribune (click to share)

REALITY ONE: The international order can quickly change. Nimble governments must act rapidly to properly protect their national interests. The most important actions are often the initial diplomatic reactions.

REALITY TWO: The predictions of all-knowing talking and writing head pundits can be outdated quickly because prevailing conventional wisdom crumbles if there's a sudden major domestic or international upheaval.

REALITY THREE: Forget the talk about how President Barack Obama will be defined by history by his legislative achievements, triangulation or the fate of health care reform. What is unfolding now, how Obama deals with it, and whether his decisions will have good or bad consequences for the Middle East and the United States will be what could define him for generations.

During the late 40s the political question became "Who lost China?" (to some it was Harry Truman). Then it became "Who lost Cuba?" (to some it was Dwight Eisenhower and JFK). Then "Who lost Vietnam?" (to some it was JFK and LBJ). And the hapless, inept Jimmy Carter will forever be associated with the question "Who Lost Iran?" and the change in the Middle East's balance of power and growth of terrorism that followed from his fateful 1979 decision to distance himself from America's longtime ally, the Shah of Iran.

Obama's dilemma is a quintessential choice between good intentions and conceptual principles versus the hard, often brutal realities of national interest. Depending on what happens in Egypt, the revolt that started in Tunisia could morph and appear full blown in Sudan, Pakistan, Libya and even China. Will those governments yield to threats from the street or seek to halt them with high body counts?

Will the United States become known as untrustworthy ally? Reuters reports that Israeli bigwigs are shocked "at how the United States as well as its major European allies appeared to be ready to dump a staunch strategic ally of three decades, simply to conform to the current ideology of political correctness."

No one has suggested that Obama and the United States have stabbed longtime Mubarak in the back -- but one Israeli commentator did suggest Mubarak was shot in the back.

How has Obama done? Some experts say not bad at all. Others say the administration was initially too tentative and pro-forma and alienated Egyptian demonstrators. Yet others say the administration and Obama finally got the tone right in urging Mubarak to exercise restraint and to reform while urging protesters to protest peacefully.

Egypt protests Hosni Mubarak Twitter Facebook cartoons

Click to view our Egypt Under Siege cartoon collection


Some liken it to walking a tightrope. But it increasingly seems less like watching a skillful tightrope walker than watching an uncertain newbie try to walk a tightrope. The rope is increasingly shaky and if there's a slip there will be consequences for the newbie and the people looking up from below.

The consequences could be enormous for Egypt, Israel, other Arab governments, the war on terrorism and the aspirations of idealistic young people around the globe who want to deep six autocratic governments and enjoy more freedoms. Will the demonstrators still seem pure if they topple Mubarak's government or will Egypt wind up like Iran?

If that happens, the question "Who lost Egypt" will be heard for decades to come. And then if you look the phrase up on the Internet, just guess whose photo will be right next to it?

Copyright 2011 Joe Gandelman

Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. CNN's John Avlon named him as one of the top 25 Centrists Columnists and Commentators. He can be reached at [email protected] and can be booked to speak at your event at www.mavenproductions.com.

Follow Joe Gandelman on Twitter @joegandelman.