As we watch the unfolding drama in Egypt and across the Middle East, it is difficult to detach oneself from the moment and think clearly about the situation and the proper U.S. policy response. Egypt presents the classic policy dilemma -- balancing our interests with our values. Our national security interests require that we deal with a leader who can provide stability and support for U.S. policies (e.g., peace with Israel, opposition to Iran); our values support more personal and political freedoms for the Egyptian people.
Yet the following points seem clear:
First, the Obama administration initially poorly judged the unrest and overcommitted itself to Mubarak. Statements by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden have now been walked back as the administration has smartly decided to give rhetorical support to the forces of democracy while sending messages to Mubarak in private. Now that they seem to be more comfortable supporting the cause of freedom and democracy, the Obama administration might want to speak out in favor of the opposition forces in Iran.
Third, it is highly unlikely that the modest reform measures that Mubarak has adopted -- such as dismissing his Cabinet, placing his security chief Omar Suleiman as vice president and today announcing he will not run for re-election -- will satisfy the "street."
After almost three decades of strongman rule by Mubarak, it is unclear whether the people are willing to wait patiently for a new leader until the scheduled September 2011 elections.
Further, Suleiman is seen as a solid intelligence professional, but someone who is totally loyal to Mubarak. He's hardly the reform figure needed to mollify the opposition. And as we've seen in Tunisia, the opposition has objected to having any remnants of the Ben Ali regime remain in the government.
Fourth, the key concern from a U.S. policy perspective (and from the perspective of Israel and moderate Arab regimes) is whether a radical Islamicist movement will emerge to take over the country, with the Muslim Brotherhood the most likely candidate. Think Hamas in Gaza. The implications of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover for the region are extremely serious, but for none more than Israel.
Fifth, there is a risk that all the focus on Egypt will distract us from developments in other countries, such as rioting in Yemen and especially Jordan (which is 60-70% majority Palestinian). In these countries, the U.S. should be providing urgent security and financial assistance to help King Abdullah and the Yemeni regime. If Mubarak falls, and that is still a big "if," then we need to be creating firewalls now to try to stop the contagion from spreading.
Finally, one can't but note that the events in Egypt have absolutely nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is obvious to us, but gives lie to the all-too-common charge that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is central to all that happens in the region.
Mitchell B. Reiss is president of Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. He is the author of "Negotiating with Evil: When to Talk to Terrorists," an e-book published in 2010 by Open Road Integrated Media.