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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, shown on Capitol Hill on Thursday, is heading to Egypt and Tunisia as the U.S. tries to stay on top of what's happening in the Arab world.
For decades, the U.S. relied on Arab autocrats to provide stability in the Middle East — but all that is changing now as popular uprisings topple dictators.
The U.S. is desperately trying to stay in the game, and officials say they will start shifting assistance to support the democratic aspirations and the economic empowerment of protesters.
In some ways, what's happening in the Arab world is similar to the end of the Cold War in Europe; the old order has collapsed, new voices are emerging and U.S. officials — including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — are struggling to keep up.
"When I spoke with the Egyptian officials just over the last couple of weeks, they kept mentioning Central and Eastern Europe," Clinton said. "They kept saying that's how we want to turn out. We don't want to get this derailed. We want to make this work. So we want to help them make it work."
The U.S. may have to rethink everything it does in the Middle East now that it can't rely as much on autocrats for stability and oil.
Clinton is taking her first steps — heading to Egypt and Tunisia. Egypt has been a major recipient of U.S. military aid, and Clinton told a budget hearing she's looking to shift some of that aid to help the country's transition.
"We have an enormous stake in ensuring that Egypt and Tunisia provide models for the kind of democracy that we want to see," she said.
President Obama has asked his advisers to come up with a new strategy that would promote the legitimate desires of people for political and economic change while maintaining alliances to counter terrorism and contain Iran.
Duke University's Bruce Jentleson says this is a risky time for U.S. policymakers.
"The only things we know about the Arab world right now are that change is going to continue to happen and outcomes are uncertain," Jentleson said. "And at the same time, we have some allies in the Arab world, Saudis and some of the Gulf countries, that are saying we don't like how much you have been working with the forces of change."
As it tries to strike this difficult balance, Jentleson said the U.S. is going to have to learn quickly to be more flexible when it comes to Islamist groups — like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood — that are likely to play an increasing role in the politics in the Middle East.
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Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is trying to revive a program that helped many in Europe in the 1990s — enterprise funds that should help create jobs in countries like Egypt and Tunisia.
"We really need to differentiate between different types of political Islam — those that are fundamentally antagonistic to our interest, al-Qaida and others, and those that we can find a basis for working with even if we don't totally agree," he said.
He says the U.S. can't go in with armies of political consultants as it did in
former Soviet bloc countries.
Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) has another idea. He's trying to revive a program that helped many in Europe in the 1990s — enterprise funds that should help create jobs in countries like Egypt and Tunisia.
"They want this and need this and it does not involve American intervention or intrusiveness," he said.
As he announced plans for the funds, Kerry said the tens of millions of dollars needed will come from existing aid programs for the region. He's hoping they send a positive signal to the Arab world — which is used to seeing the U.S. backing only autocrats in the name of stability.
"They will tell people across the Arab world that the United States is willing to help them build strong economies and strong democracies," he said. "This is an investment in the future of the Arab world and in the future of America's national security."
U.S. officials feel the administration has some things going for it. The reform movements in the Arab world are indigenous and national security adviser Tom Donilon believes they run counter to others trying to transform the region — al-Qaida or Iran.
"The Iranian narrative really does, I think, if you do a sharp analysis of this, falls quite — in a quite empty way across the region, when compared to the historic changes under way," he said.
Clinton has said she sees the situation as a competition with Iran and wants to make sure the U.S. gets in early to show support for the right kind of change.