Whatever may happen in the hours after I write this column, two things are certain: The next chapter in the magnificent and ancient civilization of the Nile is yet to be known. The role that America plays in Egypt’s great, unfolding story also remains in doubt.
I well understand the Obama administration’s uncertain message in the first week of the Egyptian tumult. We have always been conflicted in such moments. America’s founding idea has pointed to our ultimate objective - domestic and foreign: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
This founding principle of liberty was intended - when it was written - not just for Protestants of English ancestry, but for all men of all faiths - white, black, brown and yellow.
Yet, as America emerged into the world, the practical considerations of protecting our freedom and interests have often driven us to refrain from championing those principles for others.
Sometimes we have fought magnificently for the rights of others; sometimes we have backed the local strongman to advance our vital interests. And one would have to be conspicuously naive about the ways of the world to condemn - as an absolute - the propriety of American foreign policy when it acts expediently for American interests.
The historic dilemma presents itself vividly now in Egypt.
Revolutions - French, Russian, Chinese and Iranian - have a typical trajectory. They are won on the street with the masses calling for freedom; they are stolen afterward by the best-organized, usually most malicious thugs (Napoleon, Lenin, Mao and the mullahs).
Once in a while - as in our Revolution - the cry of the street slogans becomes the principle of the government that follows - but usually not.
If the revolution in Egypt results in the fall of the existing governmental order, what are the chances that the people will be governed subsequently by a more just system? And what are the chances that America’s interests will be advanced by that result?
Will the Suez Canal no longer be open and safe for its vast commerce?
Will the Middle East tilt further in the evil direction of radical Islamist forces? Will our ally Israel be further isolated from its neighbors and its right to exist?
If the Suez Canal is threatened by an anti-Western regime, is it likely that we will find ourselves forced to occupy and protect the canal for world commerce?
Whither to go on Egypt is not so much an ideological or partisan matter. There are former Reagan, Bush (1 and 2) and Clinton foreign-affairs officials on both sides of the divide. Even hardheaded realists recognize the political implications of a people’s ideas and faith. And even some idealists recognize that certain laudatory goals are not yet attainable.
The big questions on Egypt are mere factual ones: What will follow?
Can we influence the decision? Can we avoid paying a price for not acting now?