Middle East Turmoil: Proof U.S. Not in Charge

Lebanese protestors set fire to a sign of a US flag with a portrait of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and a swastika during a demonstration in Beirut supporting the ouster of Mubarak, on January 29, 2011 as thousands of anti-regime demonstrators continue to pour onto Cairo's streets, demanding Mubarak stand down the day after the veteran leader ordered the army to tackle the deadly protests. AFP PHOTO/ANWAR AMRO (Photo credit should read ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images)
ANWAR AMRO
Lebanese protesters set fire to a sign of a U.S. flag with a portrait of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during a demonstration in Beirut, Jan. 29, 2011.
Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images

"In the Middle East, rarely is there something new," Aaron David Miller told the CBS News Weekend Roundup.

"This is new."

Miller, for decades a United States government mediator in the region and now writing books in Washington at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, sees the revolt in Tunisia - that forced a pro-Western, anti-terrorism president to leave after thirty years in power - as a pattern that challenges American interests.

Egypt's unrest, so soon after Tunisia's, shows "no question, there is a trend line," Miller said. But he questions whether it unfold gradually, in manageable steps, or "are we on the cusp of fundamental change in Egypt that would then affect other regimes in the region? It's a very scary and very uncertain period."

Whose side are "we" on? The Obama administration seems to be guarding America's longtime alliance with Hosni Mubarak, who took over as president in 1981 when Anwar Sadat was assassinated for making peace with Israel. Mubarak has maintained the peace treaty, and has been a key Arab contact point for the United States - and for Israel.

Yet America has long been telling Mubarak he has to introduce real reforms, to democratize his country - if only to avert a sudden rebellion that could be led by the very anti-American Muslim Brotherhood, which seems partnered with al Qaeda.

Special Report: Anger in the Arab World

Saturday's Twitter messages from the State Department indicated dissatisfaction with Mubarak's changes so far. In Cairo a new prime minister was sworn in, as was a vice president - the powerful head of Egyptian intelligence now filling a role that Mubarak had never let anyone have. Though intel chief Omar Suleiman is well known to U.S. officials (perhaps primarily as a prime contact for the CIA), and has helped mediate between Israel and the Palestinians, he is not exactly a breath of democratic fresh air.

The Obama administration is plainly dissatisfied, but it cannot guide events in any of the Arab countries. Aaron David Miller says America does not have "street cred" any more: "It seems that everybody says 'no' to the United States without much cost and without much consequence."

The State Department keeps trying to offer guidance, following up on President Obama's five-minute speech on Friday evening after he spoke by phone to Mubarak. Here was a tweet on Saturday, a bit before 11 a.m., from State's chief spokesman @PJCrowley:

"The #Egyptian government can't reshuffle the deck and then stand pat. President #Mubarak's words pledging reform must be followed by action."

Indeed, the newly installed senior officials in Cairo seem to be crusty old leaders with new titles.

So whom might the United States prefer, perhaps as a transitional figure leading to genuine elections and authentic democracy? Mohammed el-Baradei is anxiously offering himself for the role, having flown to Cairo from Europe where he has generally been found, even after completing his years as the Nobel Prize-winning head of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency. So far, el-Baradei's reward has been house arrest in a mosque on Friday morning, a face full of tear gas fumes, and a telephone interview on France 24 television on Saturday in which he declared: "The protests will continue with even more intensity until the Mubarak regime falls."

El-Baradei might seem attractive, as a Western-style, reasonable-sounding Nobel laureate. Yet here is food for thought from Michael Ledeen, a U.S. official in the mid-1980s and now a scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington:

Ledeen believes that Iran's radical Islamic regime can be overthrown by freedom-seeking Iranians, if the West gives support - especially to the Green Movement that took to the streets of Tehran in the summer of 2009.

Blogging at Pajamas Media, Ledeen warns against el-Baradei as "the love child of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Tehran crowd" - someone who willfully failed to expose and crack down on Iran's secret nuclear weapons program.

Ledeen does see a useful role for the United States in these tumultuous times. "If we're going to praise the Tunisian and Egyptian freedom fighters," he writes, "all the more reason to hail the true martyrs in Iran, currently being slaughtered in the country's prisons at the blood-curdling rate of three per day. And that's only the officially acknowledged executions."

Every Middle East country has its bloody secrets, tales that eventually leak out about how the authorities enforce law and order - or often just dictatorial order. Choosing sides has always presented a complex set of dilemmas for the United States, and now it is up to Barack Obama and his team to come up with a strategy toward Egypt. The whole world is watching whether we will help, hurt, or just bow out and let a key ally slip away.

Dan Raviv, a national correspondent for CBS News based in Washington, spent many years in our Tel Aviv and London bureaus and has co-authored several books on Middle East intelligence and diplomacy. He is host of radio's CBS News Weekend Roundup.

  • Dan Raviv On Twitter»

    Dan Raviv is a correspondent for CBS Radio News based in Washington, host of CBS News Weekend Roundup, and co-author of "Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars"