Sixty years ago, American politics was embittered by an accusation couched as a question: "Who lost China?" The implied indictment was that America had fumbled away a possession through incompetence or sinister conniving.
In 1949, when communists came to power there, America bestrode both hemispheres shattered from war. Americans thought their nation was at the wheel of the world and that whatever happened, wherever, happened at America's instigation, or at least its sufferance, or was evidence of American negligence.
It is a sign of national maturity -- the product of hard learning, from Korea and Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan -- that fewer American complainers are today faulting the Obama administration for not anticipating and shaping events in Egypt. Israel, which lives next door to Egypt and has an excellent intelligence service, did not see this coming. So, a modest proposal:
Those Americans who know which Republican will win next year's Iowa caucuses can complain about those who did not know that when a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire, he would set a region afire. From all other Americans, forbearance would be seemly.
It also would be amazing because there is a cottage industry of Barack Obama critics who, not content with monitoring his myriad mistakes in domestic policies, insist that there must be a seamless connection of those with his foreign policy. Strangely, these critics, who correctly doubt the propriety and capacity of the U.S. government controlling our complex society, simultaneously fault the government for not having vast competence to shape the destinies of other societies. Such critics persist because, as Upton Sinclair wrote in 1935, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
America has one source of leverage over Egyptian events -- the close relations between that nation's military leadership and America's, including the material dependence of the former on U.S. assistance. But saying that Egypt's military is the nation's most impressive institution constitutes faint praise.
Can Egypt's soldiers fine-tune a whirlwind? It is largely forgotten that when Mikhail Gorbachev began contemplating reform of the Soviet Union -- before things spun out of control, as they have a way of doing -- he imagined only a more efficient communism still administered by a one-party state. Today, residual sentimentality about him obscures the fact that real multiparty pluralism was not in his original plans. And two decades later, it still is not in Russia's foreseeable future.
If there are Egyptian elections soon, America will be tempted to try to influence them. It did that successfully in Italy in 1948, where there was a substantial danger that communists would win. In Italy then, however, unlike in Egypt today, there were two clear sides -- the Cold War was taking shape. And there was a more recent and robust parliamentary tradition, including political parties, than in Egypt.
In the National Endowment for Democracy and elsewhere, the U.S. government has access to reservoirs of talent for helping Egypt improvise an infrastructure of representative government. But this must be done with exquisite delicacy because, happily, the Egyptian regime is being shaken primarily by nationalists.
An encouraging aspect of the Egyptian protests is the widespread waving of the nation's flag. Western intellectuals, who tend toward cosmopolitanism, tend to disdain the nation-state and nationalism as aspects of humanity's infancy, things to be outgrown. But the nation gives substance and structure to the secular pride and yearnings of the Egyptian people, who are demographically young but culturally ancient. Indelicate American assistance for democratization could cause a recoil from those crowds eager to be proud of an Egyptian outcome.
The question is: What comes after whatever comes next? In March 2003, as U.S. forces fought toward Baghdad, a then two-star general, David Petraeus, speaking to The Washington Post's Rick Atkinson, "hooked his thumbs into his flak vest" and spoke five words that have reverberated ever since: "Tell me how this ends."
Next, Petraeus said five unremembered words: "Eight years and eight divisions?" Atkinson explained: "The allusion was to advice supposedly given the White House in the early 1950s by a senior Army strategist upon being asked what it would take to prop up French forces in South Vietnam."
We still do not know how the process begun by America's intervention in Iraq will end -- or for that matter, how to mark the "end" of a great historical convulsion. In Egypt, Egyptians will tell us how it ends.