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Thursday, February 3, 2011


Talleyrand has never liked popular uprisings. And he is feeling sad about having had a premonition of the one now taking place in Egypt (see below). He is not surprised by the Americans’ clumsy response initially, having – as they appear to have admitted – been caught by surprise. Remarkable as that is, what is even more remarkable is the American president’s reaction, namely his stern, brusque remarks on Tuesday.

The rest of the world will not know for some time what was said during the thirty minute conversation between Obama and Mubarak. Whatever it was, it’s hard to know what led Obama to make a public statement soon after that used the word “now” in referring to the transfer of power.

For a man so gifted in the realm of inspiration, Obama’s limitations in the realm of persuasion – the only real source of power for American presidents—are striking. No doubt he’s found ways to compensate, notably with persistence. And of course Hosni Mubarak is not a man easily persuaded, at least by words.

But the first rule of choosing sides in a civil conflict is, don’t do it. If you must do it, then choose the side that you’re certain will win. And then stick with it with all you have. If the Americans are determined to see Mubarak go, and if they have the means to ensure it, then Obama was wise to cast his (and so many others’) lot with the “forces of history.”

If, on the other hand, he was unsure; if he was speaking in the role of spectator and well wisher and judge, which is how it appears, at least now, then this action could prove his biggest, most consequential gamble to date. It strikes Talleyrand, perhaps unjustly, as the act of a man thinking mainly of the historical record, the “narrative,” and to be on record for using the right words at the right time.

Words matter. Tremendously. But they will not decide this impasse.


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“ surtout, pas trop de zèle “



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