President Barack Obama does not deserve the primary credit for the Egyptian revolution -- that goes to the Egyptian people. But Obama made five critical strategic choices that maximized the possibility of success, which also show how dramatically his administration has changed American foreign policy.
1. Obama Offered No Support for Crackdown.
President Obama did not communicate to Mubarak that a brutal crackdown would be tolerated. This was unlike how the first Bush administration handled the Tiananmen Square uprising, when it proclaimed that the situation was ultimately an "internal affair." Similarly, the second Bush administration defended Pakistan's dictator as someone who "hasn't crossed the line," even after he declared emergency rule and jailed thousands of political opponents.
Mubarak clearly knew he did not have the same latitude to break up the protests that past American-backed dictators possessed, and an overwhelming use of force was never tried.
2. Obama Did Not Allow the Uprising To Be Seen as Co-Opted by America.
Obama stuck to support of democracy and free assembly, without crudely picking sides in the confrontation. While the president took a lot of heat for not embracing the protests quickly enough or explicitly enough, his restraint ensured that the world accepted the protests as the authentic voice of the Egyptian people.
Muburak allies tried to paint the revolutionaries as if they were under foreign influence. Obama did not give them enough to work with.
3. Obama Did Not Presume America Has More Influence Than it Does or Should.
The president never made the mistake of delivering ultimatums it could not enforce, which not only would have violated the principle of respecting the sovereignty of the Egyptian people, but also would have diminished American stature if those ultimatums were rebuffed.
4. Obama Did Not Drop Any Bombs On Egypt.
Neoconservatives often argue that the best way to spark a democratic uprising in a country run by an authoritarian regime is to bomb that nation. I suppose they could claim that Iraq eventually got there, but only after thousands were dead and years of sectarian violence ensued did the nation rediscover diplomacy (and talking to a broad range of people and parties).
The Egyptian way is shaping up to be far superior, as more Egyptians will be alive to enjoy their democracy.
5. Obama Signaled America Would Engage All Opposition Parties.
This move was the president at his most politically courageous and most politically powerful.
While conservatives attacked Obama for not trying to disbar the Muslim Brotherhood from participating in any future government, the president repeatedly assured Egypt that America would engage with all parties.
In the president's first statement on the protests, he said: "we are committed to working with the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people -- all quarters -- to achieve it."
In his second statement, outlining principles for democratic transition, he said, "the process must include a broad spectrum of Egyptian voices and opposition parties."
When America deals with another country, instead of only talking to the people in power or to a single opposition party, we should deal with groups representing all peoples and parties representing all ideologies in that country. That way it will be evident that America is not trying to dictate who is in power in other countries for its own ends, but that we are willing to work with whomever sovereign peoples choose to represent them, now or in the future.
Such an approach is ripe for cheap conservative attacks, because to apply it in the Muslim world means engaging with Islamic political parties with which we disagree on much. But engagement is far better than isolation, which gives terrorist organizations the opportunity to claim they offer the only path towards political relevance and empowerment.
As the president's intelligence director said yesterday: "With respect to what's going on in Egypt, I think this is truly a tectonic event. There [is] potentially a great opportunity here to come up with a counternarrative to Al Qaeda and its franchises and what it is espousing."
The president's team sees the rise of credible democracy in the world's largest Arab nation as critical to extinguishing the threat of terrorism by radical Islamists, and properly prioritized that goal ahead succumbing to the myopia of pursuing narrow self-interests in the short term. That is a major change in America foreign policy and a clear break from the previous president.
Obama has rejected the neoconservative foreign policy belief in imposing phony democracy at the point of the gun, and instead embraced the liberal foreign policy belief of promoting credible democracy through strategic diplomacy.
And the world is better off for it.