Principled Neutrality?

When pressed by reporters Wednesday to state whether the Obama administration continued to support the Mubarak government, Robert Gibbs noticeably demurred, hesitating before returning to his earlier talking point, "Egypt is a strong ally."

That much is clear. The U.S. draws a great number of benefits from its relationship with the government of Egypt, including support for Washington's political goals in the region, cooperation on counterterrorism, and transshipment of the Suez canal.

But as protests continue to roil the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and smaller towns across Egypt, the question asked by protesters, government officials, and foreign observers alike is the same: Which side is the U.S. on? Does Washington side with the government or the people of Egypt?

That's where things get interesting.

The White House appears determined to maintain a principled neutrality on Egypt's politics: principled in its steady, insistent rhetorical support for universal values like freedom of association and expression; neutral by remaining out of the increasingly dramatic confrontation between regime and citizens.

After stumbling early, with remarks from Secretary Clinton on Tuesday that implied the administration was betting on the regime (she commented that the State Department assessed Egypt as being "stable" and working to address the protesters' concerns), it has since strained to walk those comments back, conveying the U.S. determination to reach out to civil society and government alike.

In a way, this stance maintains a remarkable consistency: During the rough days in November surrounding Egypt's brazenly rigged parliamentary elections, the Obama administration stated its strong support for universal principles while refusing to intervene more energetically - despite the vocal pleas of human rights activists. Today, with the tables turned and the government grasping for support, the White House appears prepared to maintain that stance: rhetorical support for universal principles and a refusal to get any further involved.

With regard to Tunisia, the message was even more clear. In the days before Tunisian protests finally swept President Ben Ali from power, Secretary Clinton was asked her for her thoughts. After expressing concerns about regime violence and the protesters underlying economic concerns, she stated forthrightly: "We are not taking sides."

In addition to expressing support for universal principles and refusing to offer unquestioned support for scrambling authoritarians, the Obama administration has done three more things right.

First, it hasn't leaped to take credit for democratic uprisings, in the way that characterized the high times of the Bush administration freedom agenda, preferring instead to stay out of the spotlight in Tunisia's inspiring national drama. As Tunisians work to build a new, more democratic national narrative, they are rightly proud to note that they did it on their own.

Second, the administration seems to be smartly concentrating on regime violence. If there's anything the U.S. is well-placed to do, it may be preventing a violent reprisal of the Tiananmen disaster by an allied government like Egypt - particularly with weapons financed by US aid money. Few things will be more important for the course of events in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world than that government forces refrain from using deadly force.

Finally, it appears ready and willing to translate the present instability into increased pressure for reforms. Speaking from Tunis, Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said Wednesday, "I certainly expect that we'll be using the Tunisian example" in conversations with other Arab governments.

Secretary Clinton made the point more dramatically last week: speaking in Doha just one day before Ben Ali fled, she warned a gathering of Arab foreign ministers: "Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries' problems for a little while, but not forever." The U.S. benefits most not from protests on the streets, but from steady democratic reforms by governments themselves, in concert with popular participation. That's the true road to stability. And there has never been a better moment for the U.S. to articulate this message to Arab governments, in public and in private.

During the first two years of the Obama administration, many observers have been quick to criticize its quiet approach to supporting human rights and democracy in the Middle East. I'll admit that I've been one.

But perhaps it's time for a reassessment. During this unstable period, these five elements have had a positive impact: consistent support for universal principles, refusal to take sides, reticence to take the spotlight, focus on regime violence, and a readiness to respond to crisis with calls for reform.

One can only hope the administration has the fortitude and farsightedness to stick with this strategy as protests build.

Critics of the Obama administration's approach to human rights and democratic reforms now have to contend with one stubborn fact. Despite all the pronouncements of the Bush years, it was during Obama's quiet, careful era that Tunisians rose up to oust their dictator. And it will be during Obama's time in office that the U.S., together with the international community, has the chance to support the emergence of the Arab world's first true democracy.

Andrew Albertson is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. From 2007 to November 2010, he was the executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy.