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When Quiet Diplomacy May Beat Grandstanding

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On Friday, Americans discovered they didn’t need a television to catch the most gripping program around – and that, in most parts of the country, TV wouldn’t help them.

The program had more emotional surprises than a Hollywood awards show, more adrenaline-pumping tension than last week’s NFL conference championships and fewer predictable applause breaks than the State of the Union.

It was the live coverage of the uprising in Egypt broadcast to our computers by Al Jazeera English. As Americans realized the revolution was being streamed, we tuned in to an historic event: an unprecedented level of protest calling for the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

American officials were understandably slow to give full support to the democracy movement. Mubarak has been one of America’s most public allies in the region. Secretary of State Clinton has even said, “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family,” not someone whose ouster you’d quickly support. As President Obama stepped forward, his call was against the Egyptian government reacting brutally to the protests. European leaders issued a joint statement asking Mubarak to respect democratic values. Several progressive activist groups weighed in, with the initial call more generally in support of democracy and specifically against the Egyptian government’s crackdown on communications. MoveOn asked members to sign in solidarity with the democracy movement. Access Now circulated a petition to restore internet and telephone networks which the government had interrupted in hopes of scuttling the protests. CREDO was one of the few that petitioned Secretary Clinton to call explicitly for Mubarak to resign.

In short, as a world event was unfolding in tumultuous detail in a conflicted region, many leaders — from politicians to activists — were showing restraint. As the Huffington Post reported, Speaker Boehner said, “I think the administration, our administration, so far has handled this tense situation pretty well." It would be easy to paint the cautious diplomacy of the Obama team as wishy-washy or chastise them for following rather than leading. But maybe it’s more responsible to acknowledge that in these tense situations, diplomacy is more important, if less sensational, than grandstanding.

While we watch the developing drama, few are as quick to call for immediate action, intervention or declarations from our American leaders. Maybe it’s because many of the usual bloviators honestly don’t know that much about the situation — a point humorously made by a flubbed Fox News graphic that labeled Iraq as “Egypt” on a map. It’s possible the loudest voices in our discourse are quieter as we all take a few days to learn about the region.

It’s also possible that Americans are weary of the past results of America’s poorly-conceived international affairs and therefore wary of anyone who claims to know the definitely correct path for America. Furthermore, most observers with a sense of history understand that our support for factions — whether on the side of the regime or the uprising — has often led us to unintended consequences in the past. Should we support the president who has supported us, but whose anti-democratic dictatorship we’ve left unchallenged? Should we support an esteemed Nobel Prize-winning opposition voice who is in loose coalition with Islamist groups we’d otherwise consider threats? It might just be safer not to pick a side.

Or it might be that in this case, Americans from all political persuasions recognize that another country’s democratic movement isn’t ours to bolster or squelch. Rarely do I agree with Times columnist Ross Douthat, who probably angered a few fellow conservatives in Monday’s column when he acknowledged that in foreign affairs, “We have theories, and expect the facts to fall into line behind them…But history makes fools of us all.” I did find myself nodding at his summation: “The only comfort, as we watch Egyptians struggle for their country’s future, is that some choices aren’t America’s to make.” Douthat might be equally surprised to find himself in agreement with progressive organizer and writer Matt Stoller, whose twitter feed has opined: “Lots of people are worried that what comes after Mubarak won’t be a ‘friendly democracy.’ I don’t get it. It’s not up to us,” and “As an American I would like to see democracy here. I won’t speak for Egyptians, they can and are speaking for themselves.”

The weeks and months ahead will tell the story of Egypt’s uprising against entrenched powers and hopefully the years ahead will follow the arc of this emerging movement for democracy. The days ahead, though, will see us glued to our laptops. With the exception of a few states, your cable box won’t provide the best live coverage – you have to find Al Jazeera English (AJE) on your computer. Now, though, as Facebook statuses direct more friends to tune into AJE and a twitter campaign – “WeWantOurAJE” – picks up steam, we can expect one unintended consequence of this uprising may be that you’ll soon find AJE in a cable line-up near you.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."