Both sides—those preaching reform and those wanting continuity—seem reluctant to admit that they have no good way of predicting the implications of either policy for the future of Egypt and the region as a whole. On May 11, Carnegie's Robert Kagan wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urging her "strongly to take an interest in promoting democratic reform in Egypt." Tamara Coffman Wittes of the Brookings Institution explained that "there is not a zero-sum tradeoff between promoting democracy and protecting stability in Egypt."
That's wishful thinking. And behind such logic there's another dilemma—the one the Obama administration might not be able to escape when Mubarak senior leaves the stage: Should U.S. policy be guided by principled insistence on reform and democracy promotion, with an eye on the long term? Is it also willing to pay a price and ride the frightening roller coaster of Egypt's transition period? Or should Washington stick with a Mubarak-style ruler in the hope that a continuation of the consolidation of power will serve the interest of stability and thus postpone a resolution for Egyptian freedom-fighters?
Will Obama and Clinton "take the plunge" toward supporting democratic reforms more vigorously?, asked Daniel Brumberg of Georgetown's Democracy and Governance Program. "The Obama administration," he wrote, "has tried to balance its strategic and democratic commitments by embracing an ingenious solution: channel the lion's share of our democracy aid to civil society groups in the hope that their demands for change will eventually compel Arab governments to democratize—while avoiding the strategic discomfort of placing too much pressure on our autocratic allies to pursue genuine political reform."
More pressure means being more daring in Middle East affairs, having more willingness to take risks. For Obama, it means both a change of habit, a change of policy, and a change of course back to (a possibly altered version of) the discredited Bush freedom agenda. That's the irony encapsulated in Obama's dilemma: More pressure on Mubarak was once the policy advocated by Condoleezza Rice, but it was resisted by the Egyptian regime and eventually abandoned by the Bush administration for the sake of stability.
We've come full circle. Whatever Obama chooses to do, it will be a repetition of Bush policy. Whatever he does, he will be blamed either for being cynical or for being irresponsible. Whatever he does, he will alienate Egyptians. He just needs to decide whether it's more appropriate to alienate the regime or the reformers. And he has to make this decision without being able to know what the people of Egypt will do when the old lion stops roaring—and without the reassuring presence of the most reliable of all Middle East advisers, Hosni Mubarak.