WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Egypt's explosion of political unrest poses a policy dilemma for President Barack Obama's administration, which is struggling to balance U.S. strategic interests against calls for a more assertive stance in a crisis that Washington cannot control.
Call it the peril of high expectations.
Both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been criticized for being slow to grasp the scale of the upheaval in Egypt where tens of thousands of people have protested for days to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, a long-time U.S. ally.
Clinton, in particular, was mocked for saying initially that Mubarak's government appeared "stable" before she joined Obama in toughening U.S. rhetoric over the weekend with a call for an "orderly transition" -- a signal that Washington feels the 82-year old leader's days may at last be numbered.
Some political analysts have drawn unflattering parallels between the cautious U.S. response and Obama's own pledge, made in a groundbreaking speech in Cairo in 2009, that the United States wanted to see greater political freedom and accountability in the Muslim world.
"The U.S. needs to break with Mubarak now," the Washington Post said in an editorial on Saturday, a demand likely to unsettle other authoritarian U.S. allies in the region ranging from Jordan to Saudi Arabia.
But the speed with which Egypt's turmoil is unfolding, and the recognition of limited U.S. leverage, has left the Obama administration trying to perform a delicate dance: seeking to encourage reform without attempting to dictate Egypt's future.
"Nobody knows what regime will be in charge once this is over, what its goals will be, or how Egyptians will perceive that new regime. There simply is no way to know how to get out in front," said Anthony Cordesman, a national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
He called demands for a more direct U.S. role unrealistic.
"Administrations do not take the status quo and shatter it for the sheer fun of it," Cordesman said. "They haven't fallen off the tightrope, and in one sense that is an achievement.
Mubarak has been a close U.S. partner for decades and has cited the danger of Islamic militancy as, at least in part, a justification for his long grip on power.
Egypt also plays an important role in Middle East peacemaking. It was the first of only two Arab states to have signed a peace treaty with Israel and is seen by Washington as a crucial counterweight to Iran's regional clout.
Despite Egypt's strategic importance to Washington, the United States has limited influence. The roughly $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid to Egypt each year is important, but represents only about 1 percent of Egypt's GDP compared to the 20 percent it did in 1980.
"There is a deep and broad relationship, but I don't think there's an underlying dependency," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the CSIS.
The U.S. administration was clearly shaken by how quickly Egypt's unrest erupted after similar protests toppled nearby Tunisia's longtime president on January 14.
While Clinton and other officials had repeatedly warned about political challenges facing U.S. allies across the Middle East, the notion that Egypt itself could be in immediate danger was not entertained until Tunisia revolted.
"Six weeks ago people were not writing about this at all. A week ago, yeah," said one U.S. intelligence official.
American and European officials also acknowledge that the spread of social media -- Facebook, Twitter and texting -- and the leaking of sensitive U.S. documents by the WikiLeaks website were other factors that made it difficult for analysts to predict what might happen and when.
White House officials met with a group of analysts who have called for more specific U.S. demands including immediate presidential and parliamentary elections in Egypt, lifting the state of emergency and a pledge by Mubarak not to run again.
But in their public comments the White House and the State Department stuck to the cautious approach, emphasizing that Egypt's future was up to Egyptians to decide.
"It's not for us to make these choices. It is for us to encourage Egypt to open up space for true economic and political reform to occur," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
Privately, one senior official expressed frustration at the demands for a more activist public approach.
"This is the irony here: on the one hand we are accused of dominating everything and dictating everything. On the other hand we are being accused of not dominating and dictating everything ... it's not for us to dictate what happens here."
Mideast expert Stephen Cohen, who helped draft Obama's Cairo speech, said the response was informed in part by the lessons of the war in Iraq, which previous U.S. leaders once hoped would usher in a new political era in the region.
"The United States can't force democracy onto an Arab country. We made that mistake once," he said.
The Egyptian crisis may provide the United States with another lesson on how to handle its future ties in the Middle East, according to Shibley Telhami, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
"Today, our closest institutional relationships in the Arab world, driven by strategic U.S. priorities, are military to military, intelligence to intelligence, security service to security service. These agencies are the anchors of repression in the region, regardless of who rules at the top," Telhami said in an online commentary.
"Given that repression now appears to be failing, this is a moment for a bigger assessment of U.S. policy in the region -- beyond what happens in Egypt."
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, editing by Christopher Wilson)