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Obama's Mideast opportunity

A young Egyptian journalist named Merette Ibrahim has come to question visiting Defense Secretary Bob Gates at a round-table discussion. She's passionately idealistic about Egypt's new democracy, and you might think she would be enthusiastic about President Obama, who supports the political revolution under way here. But she isn't: She says Egyptians find Obama and his policies confusing.

Welcome to a growing club. This is a president who promotes change but is failing to articulate it in a way that would convince young Arabs. It may be, as his aides argue, that Obama is being deliberately low-key because he wants to keep America out of the narrative. But this quietism isn't working very well. What Obama is achieving, instead, is a fuzzy narrative. He seems to be bending to history, rather than shaping it.

The best outsider's comment I've heard about the scope of change comes from Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, of all people. In response to my question Thursday, he likened the convulsions shaking the Arab world to the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I or the end of the French mandate in the Levant after World War II.

Now, think about that analogy for a moment: What's the comparable fallen empire whose client states are now in retreat? Why, that would seem to be America. The regimes that have collapsed so far have been aligned with American hegemony. As the revolution spreads to Syria and hopefully Iran, this formula may change. But Barak's historical analogy should worry Obama.

It's not too late for Obama to seize this remarkable moment and shape it through his leadership. Here are some of the things I wish he would say and do in coming weeks, so that my Egyptian journalist colleagues will understand America's role better:

*First, the president should do everything he can to help the Egyptian revolution succeed. This is the cornerstone of positive change, and if it disintegrates into political and economic chaos, it will be a tragic setback. Egypt badly needs two things right now to avoid the ditch into which revolutions historically fall: a broad program of economic assistance to avoid the crash that's almost inevitable, otherwise; and security help (things like police training) to keep post-revolutionary disorder in check.

*Second, Obama shouldn't be shy about defending America's friends, even when they are conservative monarchies and have lots of oil. The United Arab Emirates may not be a perfect place, but it's a lot freer and more progressive than Iran, say, or Russia or China. Saudi Arabia has its problems, but it isn't an Iran-style menace, either. Encouraging change doesn't mean throwing a stick of dynamite into the oil barrel and blowing up the world economy.

*Third, Obama should encourage the anti-Gadhafi coalition to shift the Libya war from a high-visibility military campaign to a covert paramilitary effort conducted mostly in the shadows. Think of the intelligence-led campaign to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan. Arabs want Gadhafi out, but they don't want another Iraq in the process.

*Obama should go to the Middle East and embrace this moment. I understand his desire to stay out of the limelight, but it's proving to be a mistake. This is a world-historical event, as powerful as the fall of the Berlin Wall, and one for which Obama's whole life and experience have prepared him. He shouldn't play rope-a-dope with history. He should go to Cairo, and Bahrain and Damascus, too, if he can. He should listen to what people say -- and speak to them, in his authentic, powerful and necessary American voice.

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