For the Obama administration catching up with the uprising in Egypt is like chasing a runaway locomotive on a bicycle. From its initial public support for doomed Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak to its need to appear to be hands-off, the White House is saddled with an event it fears will end in a train wreck.
President Obama had a chance tonight to outright derail criticism that the U.S. and its ally in the Middle East, Israel, are acting in their interests before those of the repressed Egyptian people. Instead, not long after Mubarak announced only that he would not seek re-election this fall, Obama chose to speak in the language of diplomats and D.C., leaving it to his aides to tell us in the press that the President is being much more forceful in private.
"After his speech tonight, I spoke directly to President Mubarak. He recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable and that a change must take place," Obama said at a White House lectern, where two glasses of water were placed in case he went dry.
"Now, it is not the role of any other country to determine Egypt’s leaders. Only the Egyptian people can do that. What is clear -- and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak -- is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now," he added.
It sounded like a big build-up to Obama finally calling for Mubarak to toss in the towel immediately, but the U.S. leader fell short of that mark, essentially saying only that the transition "should lead to elections that are free and fair."
On the streets of Egypt, where some newly dispatched pro-Mubarak forces were reportedly clashing with peaceful protesters, there were chants of "Leave, leave, leave." It is too early to say whether they will be comforted or confused by Obama's words regarding Mubarak.
What is clear is that the longer Mubarak holds on to power the greater the chance that the lives of the poor and middle class protesters are threatened. Mubarak said today that he will go after violent protesters and looters, words that did not appease the peaceful demonstrators who fear they too will face repercussions for taking to the streets.
So too at risk with Mubarak still in power are U.S. allies in the Middle East, from Israel to Saudi Arabia, along with the volatile global oil markets, where profiteers prey on turmoil as they watch their bloated bank accounts overflow.
In the best case scenario, a Pan Arab democratic revolution is being born in Egypt that will be the best antidote this side of Predator Drones to Islamic fundamental radicals bent on repressing their people while they fight an unholy war with the West. The darkest result would be allowing the militant hijackers of the true teachings of the Koran to take root in Egypt while the world waits for Mubarak to pack his bags.
"It's reckoning time for the dictators," declared CNN Middle East analyst and scholar Fouad Ajami.
Lets hope Ajami is right, but this is also the era of American incrementalism, whether it's health care reform, ousting despots or dealing with China's quest for global economic supremacy, the U.S. is committed to baby steps.