February 6, 2011 in Opinion

U.S. stuck on the sidelines in Egypt

David S. Broder
 

Having grown up in the Chicago area, rooting for years for the luckless Cubs and more recently for the hapless Washington Nationals, I feel particularly qualified to comment on the Obama administration’s struggles to find a useful role to play in the crisis racking Egypt and the wider Arab world, let alone the blizzards in the Midwest and New England.

I know that sports analogies – as well as weather anecdotes from one’s youth – are dangerous and sometimes misleading. But in this case, they are irresistible.

The simple fact is that there is little Washington can do about the impact of successive years of terrible winter weather or the upheaval in Cairo that threatens America’s interests in the Middle East.

Let’s deal with the latter first. America has a long history in Egypt – too long a history. It goes back to King Farouk, a name that means nothing to many people these days. Nobody younger than my generation can summon up a mental picture of the chain-smoking playboy emperor of Cairo. But he was our man for a time in the early 1950s and the Egyptian people have neither forgotten nor forgiven.

We did business with Egypt because of our interest in the Suez Canal, the vital waterway where much of the world’s oil supply is transported from the Persian Gulf. That interest was so great that President Dwight Eisenhower rebuffed two of our staunchest allies, Britain and France, when they decided to try to wrest control of the canal from Egypt.

This made us briefly popular with the people in Cairo, but it did not last. Subsequent leaders who supported us, culminating in Hosni Mubarak, have been increasingly unpopular with their own population.

Which brings me back to my analogy.

As a Cubs fan, and more recently a Nationals supporter, I am accustomed to spending Septembers reading about other teams’ pursuit of the World Series. Whether it is the Red Sox fending off the Yankees, or the Giants trying to gain entry for the first time since Dianne Feinstein was mayor, those who share my history have learned that it’s no fun watching other teams at such historic events.

You know something big is happening and that it will inevitably affect you. But you don’t know whom to root for and, ultimately, you realize that events will unfold and you have almost no influence on the outcome.

That is the reality that confronts President Barack Obama today. His hands are tied while Egypt erupts.

At first he expressed support and sympathy for the democratic forces filling the streets and appreciation for the Egyptian military holding fire. But when it became clear that Mubarak was on his way out, sooner or later, it dawned on everyone that the Muslim Brotherhood might seize on the resulting power vacuum and chaos to erect a hostile regime on the banks of the Suez Canal.

Whom do you root for in a situation like this?

I turn with relief to the weather. Washington was shut down by snow for a whole workweek last winter because we have no capacity to deal with even a few flakes. Aside from one nightmare evening recently, this year we have been spared. But seeing the photographs of hundreds of cars and buses stranded on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago on Tuesday evening brought back memories of other blizzards that made it an adventure even to cross the Midway from Burton-Judson to Cobb Hall for a history class at the University of Chicago.

I have so often driven Lake Shore Drive, either to its exit on Sheridan Road or partway north to Addison, where all roads lead to the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field, that I could feel for the drivers and passengers who could not reach the nearest exit ramp because of all the stalled vehicles. Lake Shore Drive, better known as the Outer Drive, terminated at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, whose pristine beach was rarely populated by its elderly residents. But it stopped traffic from going straight into Evanston, the home of the two most elitist institutions in the area, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and Northwestern University, even when there was no blizzard raging. On Tuesday you couldn’t even get to the Edgewater.

There was nothing you could do about it. Just like the United States in Egypt.

David S. Broder is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.

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