President Obama's speech on Tuesday presenting the United States government's line on Egypt was so carefully calibrated to say nothing it was almost perfect in its meaninglessness.
In words so carefully chosen they sounded downright tortured (a word the President diligently avoided) Obama expressed support for the protesters in Egypt, without acknowledging that the United States has been propping up the dictator they are protesting against.
It was painful to watch the great speech-maker, who has repeatedly stirred and inspired people around the world when he talks about human rights, democratic aspirations, and overcoming cynicism and bigotry, lapsing into hollow self-parody.
" We've borne witness to the beginning of a new chapter in the history of a great country, and a long-time partner of the United States," Obama intoned. (That is, the partner who repressed, imprisoned, and tortured the citizens of your great country.) Don't get us wrong--the United States is a big supporter of pro-democracy movements, the President hastened to add. "throughout this period, we've stood for a set of core principles." These include opposition to violence, "universal values, including the rights of the Egyptian people to freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and the freedom to access information,"(here he digressed for a bit to talk about how cool Twitter and the Internet are as organizing tools), and "the need for change."
What kind of change, oh changey one? The President didn't say. He did note that he had spoken to Mubarak about an orderly transition that "must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin immediately.
Tea-leaf readers saw that as an ultimatum to Mubarak. But diplomatic speak is subtle in the extreme. If Obama was issuing a call for democracy, he was doing it with a dog whistle.
Actually, Obama sounded a bit like Mubarak himself, who, in a speech last Friday, attempted to take a kind of convoluted credit for the demonstrations against his regime, saying that it was his own government's openness that allowed for the current protests to take place.
"I have been closely following the protests and what they were asking for and calling on. My instructions to the government have stressed on providing it with an opportunity to express the opinions and demands of the citizens," Mubarak said.
"There is a fine line between freedom and chaos and I lean towards freedom for the people in expressing their opinions as much as I hold on to the need to maintain Egypt's safety and stability," he added.
He went on to condemn "chaos" and "riots."
That speech held no water with the protesters, nor did Mubarak's moving around of deck chairs in shaking up his government. When his own military refused to back him against his people, the writing was on the wall.
That brought us to Tuesday, when Mubarak gave another speech saying he'd step down in September when his term is up. Too little, too late.
The same day, Obama finally surfaced with his well-scrubbed text about how great democracy is and how great Egypt is, and how hopeful the whole situation makes us here in the U.S.
Actually, it is very hopeful. Too bad for Obama that he has to run so hard to catch the caboose on this train. And that he has to couch his words so carefully.
"To . . . the young people of Egypt, I want to be clear: We hear your voices. I have an unyielding belief that you will determine your own destiny and seize the promise of a better future for your children and your grandchildren," (The future lies ahead . . . )
"Many questions about Egypt's future remain unanswered." (Mistakes were made.)
The President got one thing right: neither he nor the United States government are driving the spontaneous uprising in Egypt. This is not a neocon fantasy of democracy unleashed by U.S. military force. Quite the opposite. The United States was caught flat footed.
As U.S. citizens we can only watch in wonder at the massive transformation taking place.
For now, the mood of hope is still the most striking thing about what's going on in Egypt.
Instead of devolving into chaos and violence, as Mubarak predicted and even seems to have tried to bring about by reportedly releasing prisoners and security thugs to take part in looting, the Egyptian protesters formed block associations, linked arms to protect antiquities, and divided into squads to clean up the streets and even sort trash from recycling after massive demonstrations.
"You see all these people, with no stealing, no girls being bothered, and no violence," Cairo citizen Omar Saleh told a New York Times reporter. "He's trying to tell us that without me, without the regime, you will fall into anarchy, but we have all told him, ‘No.' "
Nicholas Kristof, blogging from Cairo, can't get over the giddiness of the Egyptians he is interviewing on the streets. They are disappointed in the United States' focus on what could go wrong, on the repercussions for oil prices, for Israel, for U.S. influence in the region.
". . . one thing nags at me," Kristof writes. "These pro-democracy protesters say overwhelmingly that America is on the side of President Mubarak and not with them. They feel that way partly because American policy statements seem so nervous, so carefully calculated - and partly because these protesters were attacked with tear gas shells marked "made in U.S.A."
Obama's speech didn't do much to ameliorate that problem.
"I find it sad that Egyptians are lecturing Americans on the virtues of democracy," Kristof writes.
Don't we all.