Editor's note: Hamid Dabashi is the author of "Iran: A People Interrupted" and the Hagop Kevorkian professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. His most recent book is "Iran, the Green Movement and the U.S.: The Fox and the Paradox" (Zed Books, 2010).
(CNN) -- A dictator has fallen. A people are freed. The sky is the limit of their dream, and the dream of the rest of the world celebrating with them.
How will history judge President Barack Obama's response to the seismic changes that have happened in Egypt?
Observers around the globe are comparing the extraordinary events unfolding in and around Tahrir Square and the dramatic exit of Hosni Mubarak to the fall of the Berlin Wall, to the collapse of the Soviet Union or alternatively to the aspirations of the protesters of Tiananmen Square.
All these metaphors can only hint at the historic magnitude of what we have been seeing unfold in front of our eyes, and not just in Egypt. And we are still coming to terms with the uprising in Tunisia and the Green Movement in Iran that followed the disputed presidential election of 2009.
There is no doubt that when one puts these three events next to each other, all in the short span of 2½ years, the old, clichéd manner in which Washington tries to understand them categorically fails.
The Obama administration's response to the Egypt revolution has been, from beginning to end, indecisive and incoherent, leading one to wonder who really minds the shop at the White House at times of crisis.
Beginning with Vice President Joe Biden supporting President Hosni Mubarak as an ally and "not a dictator," and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially saying the regime was stable down to Obama handing the Egyptian president a laundry list of what he has to do "right now" before finally applauding the cause of the victorious protesters, we are witness to a political culture that's more embarrassing to the U.S. than the WikiLeaks disclosures.
What we are dealing with is not merely a matter of "realist" and "pragmatic" policymakers trying to sustain a status quo that has resulted in catastrophic wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and an evidently insoluble Arab-Israeli conflict. Far more seriously, the dominant political culture of Washington is the issue. Obama got to the White House by challenging that culture and has now become a captive of it.
The ground is shifting in one of the most vital spots on planet Earth with dizzying speed, and Washington seemed incapable of shifting its gears fast enough to catch up with it. America risks being seen as irrelevant and inconsequential to the rest of the world.
Long before the demise of Mubarak, Obama should have recognized the historic importance of what was happening in Egypt and directly addressed the Egyptian people -- acknowledging their democratic will to be free, sharing their dream for emancipation from a politics of deception and despair and anticipating the spread of that dream to other parts of the region. He should have committed his administration not to wait for the fall of the next dictator before Americans extend their hands in solidarity with a transnational uprising to achieve a better world.
Mubarak is now lost in ignominy in history. But what will American children read in their history books a decade or a century from now? How will Obama, once seen as a visionary statesman, be viewed?
When he received the Nobel Peace Prize at the outset of his presidency, I was among those who said publicly that he deserved it. So early in his career as a president, he had not done anything meaningful to lend credence to that honor. But I thought he had awakened a sense of pride, purpose and dignity among the younger generation of Americans that would commit them to contribute greatly to humanity at large. In the events of the past month in Tunisia and Cairo, he has had a gift from history to justify the prize after the fact -- but alas he did very little to show he deserved it.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Hamid Dabashi.