Though members of the Obama administration say they haven’t been surprised by what has transpired in Egypt over the last week, it seems they were.
And while it stands to reason that they must’ve had a long-standing plan for how to react to the end of the Mubarak era, it seems they don’t.
Despite repeated questions from the US press corps to administration officials on what exactly they want to happen in Egypt, no clear answer has yet emerged.
The message from the administration continues to be that Egypt’s future is up to Egyptians.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs wouldn’t say what scenario Washington would like to see in Cairo, “that is not for our country or our government to determine. I don’t think that people that seek greater freedom are looking for somebody else to pick what and how that change looks like”.
But of course Washington is very particular about the kind of government it wants to see in Egypt – one that’s US friendly, continues its relationship with Israel, and keeps the Suez Canal open and safe for oil tankers.
Political turmoil that puts any of those things in jeopardy is not the kind of change Washington could easily swallow.
Oil prices have already jumped with investors wary of what the turmoil in Egypt could do to the Suez.
A senior state department official on Monday expressed the tight rope the administration is walking – “this is the irony here, on the one hand we’re accused of dominating and dictating everything and on the other hand we’re accused of not dominating and not dictating”.
Barack Obama has had multiple briefings on the situation since the crisis in Egypt first unfolded.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has largely taken the lead on making public comments about Egypt in support of democracy. Former US ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner was asked to go to Cairo to meet with officials and provide an assessment.
But his message to current officials or opposition leaders is being kept quiet.
As the protests that started in Tunisia earlier this month and toppled that regime spread to US allies like Egypt and Yemen, the Obama administration is worried about broader instability in the Middle East.
The spectre of 1979 remains – the US in the middle of an economic crisis and botched response to the popular unrest in a key US ally, Iran, leading to the defeat of Jimmy Carter in 1980 presidential election.
With only 20 months until its next US presidential election, the Obama administration is eyeing how much it can exert control over the situation without becoming a spoiler.