STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Shortly before President Hosni Mubarak made his speech yesterday, the president of the United States gave a speech in Michigan.

President BARACK OBAMA: What is absolutely clear is that we are witnessing history unfold. It's a moment of transformation that's taking place because the people of Egypt are calling for change.

INSKEEP: History did not unfold exactly as expected. The president's own CIA director began the day thinking that Mubarak was likely to resign. After Mubarak stopped short of that, the Obama administration released a statement asking Egypt to explain what's going on.

The U.S. has struggled to chart a course in Egypt - first backing the Mubarak government, then calling on the president to leave now and then backing a slower transition. Whatever the U.S. has pushed for has not actually happened. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN: President Hosni Mubarak has 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.

Mr. AARON DAVID MILLER (Woodrow Wilson Center): We find ourselves in the worst of all possible worlds, with grand expectations and supporting very important values but without the capacity and the leverage to implement a preferred American outcome, or even an outcome in Egypt that we can control.

KELEMEN: Miller says this is part of a long trend for the U.S. America's credibility, he argues, has been sinking to new lows.

Mr. MILLER: 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 without consequence. I mean, Karzai says no, Maliki on occasion says no, Khamenei says no, Netanyahu says no. Mubarak has said no repeatedly.

KELEMEN: 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 signals.

Mr. AMJAD ATALLAH (New America Foundation): There is this kind of back and forthing on any given day. On one day it might be that, you know, Mubarak looks like he has to leave; on another day you get a call from a king or you get a call from an emir, you get a call from the prime minister of Israel, and you get weak-kneed and you think, oh my God, we're going to have to try keep as much as the status quo as possible.

KELEMEN: And the longer this plays out, particularly in public, the weaker the U.S. looks to everyone, Atallah says.

Mr. ATALLAH: 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 that we've been supporting for so long, but they might also lose influence with the protesters and the forces for democracy and freedom.

KELEMEN: If there was ever a moment to play the aid card, Atallah thinks this is it. The U.S. shouldn't be spending nearly $2 billion a year to help Egypt buy American weapons, he argues, but rather use some of that money to promote reforms.

There are others in Washington who think the U.S. needs to review that aid, including Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution.

Mr. ROBERT KAGAN (Brookings Institution): At the end of the day, of course, I think it's just literally the case that if the Egyptian regime basically transforms itself into a dictatorship without the name Mubarak at the top of it, that they will lose U.S. aid. And right now they're not sure that that's true, and I think the more we make it clear to them, the better chance we have.

KELEMEN: The test of U.S. leverage, Kagan says, is just beginning.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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