The Obama administration has had a hard time figuring out its message on Egypt, having gone from supporting the Mubarak government, to calling on the president to leave "now," to backing a slower transition that would allow time for changes to Egypt's constitution.
"What is absolutely clear is that we are witnessing history unfold," Obama said at a jobs rally in Michigan on Thursday. "It's a moment of transformation because the people of Egypt are calling for change."
The comments were made before Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak went on TV and surprised most of the world by announcing he wasn't leaving. Several hours later, the administration released a statement that, in essence, asked Egypt to explain what was going on and scolded the government.
It "is not yet clear that this transition is immediate, meaningful or sufficient," the statement said.
"We therefore urge the Egyptian government to move swiftly to explain the changes that have been made, and to spell out in clear and unambiguous language the step-by-step process that will lead to democracy and the representative government that the Egyptian people seek," it added.
But Mubarak made clear that outside interference is not welcome. And as Woodrow Wilson Center scholar Aaron David Miller points out, the U.S. is in a tight spot.
"We find ourselves in the worst of all possible worlds," he says, "with grand expectations and supporting very important values, but without the capacity and leverage to implement a preferred American outcome or even an outcome in Egypt that we can control."
Miller says this is part of a long trend for the U.S.; America's credibility, he argues, has been sinking to new lows.
"We are neither admired, respected or feared to the degree that we need to be in order to protect our interests, and the reality is — and this is just another demonstration of it — everybody in this region says no to America without cost or consequences," he says. "[Afghanistan's] Hamid Karzai says no, [Iraq's] Maliki on occasion says no, [Iran's] Khamenei says no, [Israel's] Netanyahu says no. Mubarak says no repeatedly."
U.S. credibility fell over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, analysts say, and again last year when Israel rejected U.S. calls for a building freeze in the occupied West Bank. Egypt is one place where the U.S. can stop this decline, says Amjad Atallah of the New America Foundation.
But, he says, the administration needs to get its act together first and stop giving Egypt mixed messages.
"There is this back-and-forthing on any given day," he says. "On one day it might be that Mubarak looks like he has to leave; on another day you get a call from a king, you get a call from an emir, and you get weak-kneed and you think we are going to have to keep as much of the status quo as possible."
And the longer this plays out, particularly in public, the weaker the U.S. looks to everyone, Atallah says.
"The great danger to the administration right now is that they might end up losing influence on both sides. They might lose influence with the autocrats we've been supporting for so long, but they might also lose influence with the protesters and the forces for democracy in freedom," he says.
If there was ever a moment to play the aid card, Atallah says, this is it.
The U.S. shouldn't be spending nearly $2 billion a year to help Egypt buy American weapons, he argues, but should use some of that money to promote reform instead.
"These are weapons that are purchased in a country where 50 percent of the people are below the poverty line," Atallah says. "So we need to shift that anyway. I think now could be a good time to start making that shift and linking it to demands that the United States is making for reform."
There are others in Washington making the case for playing the aid card, especially now that the U.S. is making specific calls for reforms.
Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution, the co-chairman of a bipartisan working group on Egypt, says the U.S. used what leverage it had to make sure the army didn't crack down on protesters. Now, he says, the Obama administration needs to use the aid card to make sure there are real reforms.
"At the end of the day, I think it is literally the case that if the Egyptian regime transforms itself into a dictatorship without the name Mubarak at the top of it, that they will lose U.S. aid," Kagan says. "Right now they are not sure they will lose the aid, and I think the more we make that clear to them, the better chance we have."
The test of U.S. leverage, Kagan says, is just beginning.