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Egypt presents a delicate balancing act for Obama

President Obama inherited two wars when he entered the White House, and now the sudden upheaval in Egypt poses a big new foreign policy challenge for his presidency.

How effectively the administration manages it will shape perceptions of Obama as a leader abroad and at home. If events spiral out of control, Obama and his advisors will be criticized for failing to head off a potential disaster in a volatile part of the world.

Even as he winds down U.S. military involvement in Iraq and attempts to gain the upper hand against global terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama has hoped to keep his main focus on jobs and the American economy. But the latest images from northern Africa, playing out across the region and in the U.S., challenge Obama’s standing with the public.

“Who knows where this is going?” said Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to several Middle Eastern countries and currently dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. “Should things not hold in Egypt, or should this catch fire in other Middle Eastern states, people really are going to watch how he handles the first major new foreign crisis on his watch.”

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Diplomatic veterans like Crocker, and other outside analysts, give Obama’s team generally positive marks for handling an exceedingly complex problem.

But critics are already making the case that Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were slow to react. They say top administration officials issued public statements overly supportive of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak while his regime was encountering a growing surge of popular protest.

Obama met with advisors Saturday at the White House to review the latest developments, including Mubarak’s decision to name a top intelligence official as his vice president.

U.S. officials didn’t object to Mubarak’s government shuffle, but they made it clear that they want far more change in the days ahead. The U.S. is looking for “managed change: adjustments over a fairly extended period of time that allow you to manage it in a fairly orderly way,” a senior administration official said.

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Though the administration is pressing for opposition groups and civil activists to be given more political influence, “that doesn’t necessarily mean the governing coalition will be swept away, not at all,” the official said.

The official said it remained unclear what side the Egyptian military will choose in the contest between Mubarak and the opposition.

For Obama and American interests around the globe, the stakes in the crisis are potentially enormous.

“This is a big deal for President Obama,” said Martin Indyk, director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution. “It requires very cool judgment to calibrate this in a way that does minimal damage to our interests.”

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Obama’s remarks late Friday, seen as supportive of the anti-Mubarak uprising, were “the right thing to do,” Indyk said.

“But it’s a very risky strategy because the end result could be that an ally that we depended on to protect American interests and stability in this volatile region will be toppled, and that a very unstable situation in Egypt will then spread across the region, and that can do great damage to our interests.”

At the same time, “clinging to Mubarak, when it’s clear that he’s lost his legitimacy among the Egyptian people and ends up using force and a great deal of bloodshed to retain his power, could produce the very instability we’re trying to avoid,” said Indyk, who held top State Department posts in President Clinton’s administration and has served as an outside advisor to George Mitchell, Obama’s special envoy for Middle East peace.

From the start of his presidency, Obama has sought to defuse anti-Americanism in the Muslim world and end talk of a “clash of civilizations.”

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In his Cairo speech in 2009, he said the U.S. supported Arabs’ aspirations for greater freedom. Yet, in many ways, the administration has continued the policies of previous U.S. governments, including support for the region’s authoritarian regimes.

Polls show the administration’s public support among Arabs has declined from the time of his inauguration. Some Arab activists say they preferred the more sharp-edged message of President George W. Bush, who pushed a “freedom agenda.”

Obama came under criticism in June 2009 for failing to more forcefully back Iranians who took to the street to protest a presidential election they believed was rigged. He later stepped up his public expressions of support for the demonstrators.

Egypt, the most populous Arab country, has been a key to U.S. influence in the region for more than 30 years. It has been a U.S. partner in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, works with the administration against Islamist extremism and has joined the U.S. in trying to contain Iran.

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The fall of its government could exacerbate pressures on some neighbors, potentially setting off a wave that reshapes the political and security balance throughout the greater Middle East.

The rise of a less friendly government in Cairo would also set off alarms in Jerusalem, resulting in calls for the U.S. to increase its defense of its closest Middle East ally, Israel.

David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the U.S. strategy in the region has been to offset Iran’s power through its influence with Egypt and Turkey.

“And now we don’t have Turkey anymore,” he said, referring to Turkey’s increasing independence from the United States.

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One sign of the risks of change in Egypt has come from the warnings of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that has said it would tear up Egypt’s peace treaties with Israel if it were in charge, Schenker noted.

Obama clearly has been trying to avoid mistakes the U.S. has made in the region, such as siding with the authoritarian shah of Iran until he was swept from power in a way that left bitter feelings.

“I’m sure they’re thinking about the lessons of Iran,” said John Limbert, a former senior State Department official who was and a hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. “The question is whether they’re drawing the right ones.”

paul.richter@latimes.com

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paul.west@latimes.com

Peter Nicholas in The Times’ Washington Bureau contributed to this report.


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