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As the Arab world responds to the uprisings in the Middle East, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is heading to the region this week to reinforce the Obama administration's message. The U.S. is desperately trying to stay in the game, and as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, officials say they will start shifting assistance to support the democratic aspirations and the economic empowerment of protesters.

MICHELE KELEMEN: 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.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): When I spoke with the Egyptian officials just over the last couple of weeks, they kept mentioning Central and Eastern Europe. They kept saying, that where we want to turn out. We don't want to get derailed. We want this to work. So, we want to help them make it work.

KELEMEN: 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 the budget hearing that she's looking to shift some of that aid to help the country's transition.

Sec. CLINTON: We have an enormous stake in ensuring that Egypt and Tunisia provide models for the kind of democracy that we want to see.

KELEMEN: President Obama has asked his advisors 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.

Professor BRUCE JENTLESON (Public Policy and Political Science, Duke University): And the only things we know about the Arab world right now are that change is going to continue to happen and outcomes are uncertain. 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.

KELEMEN: As it tries to strike this difficult balance, Jentleson says 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 politics in the Middle East.

Prof. JENTLESON: So, we really need to differentiate between different types of political Islam, those that are fundamentally antagonistic to our interests -al-Qaida and others - and those that we can find a basis for working with, even if we don't totally agree.

KELEMEN: He says the U.S. can't go in with armies of political consultants, as it did in former Soviet bloc countries.

Senator John Kerry has another idea. He's trying to revive a program that helped many in Europe in the 1990s - enterprise funds that could help create jobs in countries like Egypt and Tunisia.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): They want this and they need this and it does not involve American intervention or intrusiveness.

KELEMEN: As he announced plans for the funds, Senator Kerry said the tens of millions of dollars needed will come from existing aid programs for the region. And he's hoping they will send a positive signal to the Arab world, which is used to seeing the U.S. backing only autocrats in the name of stability.

Sen. KERRY: They will tell people across the Arab world that the United States is willing to help them build strong economies and strong democracies. This is an investment in the future of the Arab world and in the future of America's national security.

KELEMEN: U.S. officials feel the administration has some things going for it. The reform movements in the Arab world are indigenous and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon believe they run counter to others trying to transform the region, al-Qaida or Iran.

Mr. TOM DONILON (National Security Advisor): The Iranian narrative really does - I think if you do a sharp analysis of this, it falls in a quite empty way across the region when compared to the historic changes underway.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State Clinton has said she sees the situation as a competition with Iran and makes sure the U.S. gets in early to show support for the right kind of change.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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