Yesterday, in Rabat, Stephen Harper was scrambling to keep up with events on the ground in the Arab world - no easy task when you're the prime minister of a country that for decades has had close relations with Tunisia and is now harbouring the family of the deposed dictator. And, in this morning's Globe and Mail, I see in Paul Koring's report that things were pretty much the same in Washington yesterday: "After decades of American policy predicated on backing reliable, albeit repressive regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Barack Obama has begun signalling more sympathy with the aspirations of protesters in the Arab street."
Over at the New York Times on the other hand, readers are reminded today that this is not the first shift in the President's Mideast policy since coming to office two years ago: "relations with Mr. Mubarak warmed up because President Obama played down the public 'name and shame' approach of the Bush administration. A cable prepared for a visit by Gen. David H. Petraeus in 2009 said the United States, while blunt in private, now avoided 'the public confrontations that had become routine over the past several years'."
As one of the papers that has had access to the latest batch of WikiLeaks diplomatic cables, the Times also serves up an interesting account of U.S.-Egypt diplomacy at the highest levels: "It was Hillary Rodham Clinton's first meeting as secretary of state with President Hosni Mubarak, in March 2009, and the Egyptians had an odd request: Mrs. Clinton should not thank Mr. Mubarak for releasing an opposition leader from prison because he was ill.
In fact, a confidential diplomatic cable signed by the American ambassador to Egypt, Margaret Scobey, advised Mrs. Clinton to avoid even mentioning the name of the man, Ayman Nour, even though his imprisonment in 2005 had been condemned worldwide, not least by the Bush administration."
No wonder Mr. Obama is now scrambling: First he cut U.S. ties with Egypt's nascent civil-society movement. Then he honoured President Hosni Mubarak by making the Mideast outreach speech he had promised during the election campaign in Cairo. Now, like us, the Americans can only watch and wait to see what develops on the ground. And things could get worse, much worse for the Americans. While Egypt is important to its strategic interests in the region, the lynchpin for U.S. involvement, ever since it replaced Great Britain as the outside hegemon, is Saudi Arabia. And however 'unethical' Saudi oil may be, however much Mr. Obama may be committed to clean energy, that oil will remain indispensable to the global economy for many years to come.
Were the protests that began in Tunisia and have now spread to Yemen and Egypt to spread to Saudi Arabia, President Obama would be confronted with a historic decision on a par with the one Jimmy Carter faced in the second half of what ended up to be his one-term presidency. With the Shah of Iran - a long-time and faithful U.S. ally falling to street protests in 1979 - Mr. Carter chose not to intervene. The U.S. has been living with the consequences of that decision ever since. Whether Mr. Obama would make a similar decision in 2011 is a question that no doubt is being cogitated right now at the highest levels of his Administration.