Note: Stoddard is a regular columnist for The Hill. For her latest piece, see here.


Reports out of Egypt indicate that President Hosni Mubarak could go tonight. This is a sudden reversal from a protest movement that was facing long odds just 48 hours ago.

All week, protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo have watched as their new vice president, Omar Suleiman, went through the motions of "negotiations" with opposition leaders that participants dismissed as inadequate and insincere. They watched as the United States provided quiet consent. President Obama even used the word "progress" to describe the talks in which Suleiman affirmed that President Mubarak would never resign and also insisted there was no need to lift the state of emergency Egyptians have lived under for 30 years under the Mubarak regime.

It was quite different from the message President Obama had sent when he called for an orderly and meaningful transition to begin now. Suddenly, Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPence: Chief Justice Roberts 'has been a disappointment to conservatives' Top federal official says more details coming on foreign election interference The Hill's Campaign Report: COVID-19 puts conventions in flux  MORE was warning of too rapid a transition, should Mubarak actually depart, while Vice President Biden made repeated phone calls to Suleiman in hopes of speeding up a reform agenda. It was clear the Obama administration had acquiesced to Suleiman's new efforts to consolidate power, no matter how illegitimate his concessions to the protesters.

And there were shocking comments from former Egyptian envoy Frank Wisner last weekend, when he spoke of the importance of Mubarak remaining in power. Dispatched the week before by the Obama administration to request that Mubarak and his son both take themselves out of the running in elections coming this September, Wisner then said days later, "I believe that President Mubarak's continued leadership is critical."

The messages were mixed, which the people in the streets heard loud and clear — the many messages said loudly that Americans are in a bind, with one foot in the water and one foot still in the boat. Allies in other Middle East nations were getting nervous, accusing Obama of moving too quickly against Mubarak and urging him to place stability before a push for a hasty and chaotic democracy. He heard their complaints and changed his tack once more.
 
What is clear from the rollercoaster ride of the last two and a half weeks is that the Obama administration will remain in a reactive posture, a state of whiplash determined by completely unpredictable events on the ground in Cairo. But the sum of the administration's reactions, and the entire challenge, has revealed much about President Obama and his foreign policy worldview. What we have seen is what Ross Douthat described in his New York Times column as Obama's cold-blooded realpolitik, a policy that weighs practical considerations over idealism.
 
Douthat writes that Egypt is "a situation that calls for great caution, rather than grand idealistic gestures. And it calls for a certain measure of of relief, from the American public, that this liberal president's foreign policy instincts have turned out to be so temperamentally conservative."
 
John Heilemann agreed in New York Magazine. He wrote that the episode paints a picture of Obama as "a president who views foreign policy through the lens of pragmatism, not idealism or ideology. Of a president who is in some ways (and surprisingly) more sure-footed playing the inside game of old-school diplomacy than the outside game of grand public gestures."

So far, so true. But as for next week, who knows?
 

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