Behind the Obama administration's concern over legalism, many current and former officials worry that any withdrawal of support for Egyptian President Mubarak will reverberate through the region much as did President Carter's abandonment of the Shah of Iran.
The two situations are not analogous, however. Egypt has been an ally in name only. When Vice President Cheney called Mubarak a good friend and a U.S. ally, it is telling that his example of Mubarak's friendship — Egyptian assistance during the liberation of Kuwait — is two decades old. He omitted that Mubarak held out for $14 billion in debt forgiveness before he chose sides.
As for the shah, Iran had been a loyal ally during the cold war when the stakes were higher. While the shah's fall harmed American national security interests, what occurred next compounded the damage: Desperate to ingratiate himself with revolutionary students, President Carter was willing to sacrifice the shah's life. He not only sought to force the shah to leave American soil for Panama, but he quietly encouraged Panamanian authorities to send the shah back to Iran before the deposed monarch could travel on to Egypt. Thankfully, they did not. The problem with Carter's approach was not the shah's fall, but White House dithering in its aftermath.
So long as Mubarak remains in power, the most radical elements will use his presence as an irritant against which to rally. If Obama and Secretary Clinton try to take a legalistic approach now, they will alienate the protesters. After all, Mubarak's behavior was little grounded in Egyptian constitutionalism. Instead they should be proactive: They should support establishment of a technocratic transitional government, use their soapbox to help it make the necessary legal changes to ensure a smooth election according to a set time line, and then welcome Egypt's new democratic order.