Death on the Nile

02/03/2011 08:56 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Events in Egypt over the past 24 hours make it clear that the Obama initiative was part of a joint political maneuver designed to blunt the protests and to prevent displacement of the current power structure. Mubarak's intransigent tone in his Tuesday address was the first tip-off that Washington has not pressured him to step down. There probably was an agreement on the not-run-again pledge as a tactical device to advance that end. The White House spin yesterday evening that Mubarak hadn't gone as far Obama wanted is just that -- spin to make the president look good while profiting (it believes) from stalling on change that threatens the status quo of Egypt as a loyal ally of the United States and Israel.

Yesterday, confirmation was provided by three developments: the army's demand to the protesters to cease their agitation; the orchestration of attacks by Mubarak forces on the protesters; and the tacit withdrawal of the military's offer for talks with the opposition.

It is impossible to believe that this would have occurred in the face of strong Washington pressure to conciliate the opposition or expect a withdrawal of the economic aid on which the regime survives. However this plays out in the short term, the United States is hammering another nail into the coffin of its untenable strategies in the Middle East. The repercussions will be mounting hatred of America across the Arab and Islamic world. We thereby have raised markedly the risk of terrorist acts whose prevention supposedly is our number one priority.

As the full dimensions of the brutal crackdown in Cairo become evident, one naturally is inclined to accuse Barack Obama of cynicism and hypocrisy. The White House statement that he "deplored and condemned" the violence is indeed hypocritical insofar as it is now clear that the story of the 'stern' message sent to Mubarak yesterday is a self-serving distortion of what surely was a much more tentative and qualified message.

Still, it is improbable that Obama foresaw the violent actions taken. What we have is yet another instance of a man with an exalted view of his own abilities who cannot cope with matters of this complexity and personalities so alien to him. His oh so clever ploy of nudging Mubarak but not quite pushing hard enough (while claiming otherwise) is vintage Obama. This is the sort of thing that works with the Pelosis and Reeds and, surely, with progressive Democrats. It is self-defeating in dealing with the likes of the ruthless Hosni Mubarak in the rough and tumble of Middle East politics. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Mubarak and his military cohort played Obama for a fool. This is not the first time that this sort of thing has occurred. Let us bear in mind Bibi Netanyahu, Maliki, Kayani (and Musharraf before him with Bush as the foil).

There are three lessons to be drawn from this latest tragedy. Most obviously, the team of Obama-Clinton-Donilon-Daley is simply not up to the task of conducting the nation's foreign policy; most certainly not in pursuing our audacious plans in the wider region. This is a manifest fact of life.

Second, the attempt to square circles on questions of democracy/civil liberties, on the one hand, and realpolitik in relying on hard men and hard actions to suppress imagined enemies, on the other, is an irretrievable failure. Any viable alternative will have to scale back objectives and redefine interests more narrowly.

Finally, the United States is committed to relying on military to military ties as a foundation for its influence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, the African Sahel states, and elsewhere. Egypt is a vivid further demonstration of how dubious a proposition that is. Washington has been congratulating itself on how thirty years of bonding with the Egyptian officer corps shaped their restrained, moderate behavior. Well, into every dogmatist's life some realism must fall.

It is deeply distressing to be reminded that the President of the United States and the leader of the 'free world' is acting like a foolish man. But there is no sugarcoating that painful reality.