A CIA chief who publicly predicts the departure of Hosni Mubarak on the basis of “press reports”, and a White House that reacted in “disbelief” on Thursday to the Egyptian President’s decision to stay on – only to watch on television the next day as his vice-president announced that Mr Mubarak had indeed left office and the military was taking charge.
Nothing could more vividly underline what is self-evidently true but what both admirers and detractors of the US find hard to admit: that the world’s superpower has been a powerless spectator at the greatest and most momentous popular uprising in the modern history of the Middle East.
From the outset the US has been reacting to events – and not very consistently, first supporting Mr. Mubarak, then urging his swift departure, then calling for and orderly transition, before finally throwing its weight unequivocally behind the pro-democracy movement. Only at the end, it seems, was President Obama in the know, having been informed in advance yesterday morning that the Egyptian leader of 30 years was going.
In fact, by luck or judgement, the crisis has worked out more or less the way Washington probably wanted: the end of the ancien regime (or so it would seem today, for this Egyptian drama has repeatedly defied predictions) and the assumption of power by the military, with which the US has longstanding and close ties, and of which it is a key supplier.
If the Obama adminstration has any leverage to exert, then it is probably under the current circumstances. Essentially, though, it is a spectator. It has no better idea than anyone else of what will happen now: whether Egypt will indeed progress to free and fair elections, whether there will be a new constitution – or whether reforms will be mostly cosmetic, with one military-backed strongman and his supporters ultimately replacing another.
Of course, the CIA will still be trying to divine the future, but with scant likelihood it will do any better than in the past. There has been much griping here at how the US intelligence establishment failed to see what would happen in Egypt – just like everyone else.
In fact, as James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence told Congress, the Agency has produced hundreds of reports in recent years warning of the deep underlying instability of Egypt and other Arab regimes. But – just like everyone else – it could not foresee the exact tipping point.
But when that tipping point arrived, it could only watch. “Our biggest problem is always, how do we get into the head of somebody,” Leon Panetta, the CIA chief, admitted. And the goings-on over the last few days in the head of Hosni Mubarak, the most crucial player of all, seem to have baffled not only foreign intelligence agencies, but even some of his closest advisers.
The likelihood is that the US will be kept on the sidelines. If the convulsions in Egypt have exposed anything, it is the myth that Washington can make events in the Middle East dance to its tune. It still has unchallengeable military might. But the use of that military might to topple Saddam Hussein ultimately sapped US credibility across the region.
“We are neither admired, respected or feared to the degree that we need to be in order to protect our interests,” said Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center, an adviser to several Secretaries of State on Middle East policy. “The reality is everybody in this region says no to America without cost or consequence. [Afghanistan] Hamid Karzai says no, [Iraq’s] Maliki on occasion says no, [Iran's] Khamenei says no, [Israel's] Netanyahu says no.” Mr Mubarak too had defied Washington again and again, on political reform, culminating in last autumn’s rigged elections. And when he fell at last, the US had nothing to do with it.