Just who exactly is jockeying in the wings to outflank the true moderates or autocratic leaders of the Arab world and seize control of the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon in the event sinister forces and/or "people power" (aka the so-called "Arab Street") sends them packing?
In each case, check either "a relative unknown" or "our worst nightmare."
And that simple equation illustrates the declining influence the U.S. has in the region to shape events to protect our strategic interests throughout the Middle East.
The cascading (and not necessarily connected) crises that have erupted throughout the Arab world in recent weeks place American foreign policymakers in an extraordinarily impotent quandary.
Given its declining credibility in the region (overpromising/underperforming) the administration has regrettably little maneuvering room despite Obama's personal popularity and the resonance of his message of "hope" aimed at the very youth who are taking to the streets.
But this is no time to throw up our hands and walk off the playing field.
Secretary of State Clinton has been given the unenvious role of exhorting Arab rulers to heed the call of the "dtreet" and accelerate reforms, while holding America's tongue for fear of further fueling the riots. And this is just days after her WikiLeaks-required "Apology Tour" to those very Arab leaders who were miffed at the embarrassing disclosures.
As events rapidly unfold, no one at Foggy Bottom or the White House can afford to ignore Jimmy Carter's greatest foreign policy blunder when he abandoned the Shah to the Persian street. Nor should they gloss over Condoleezza Rice's naïve attempt to promote free Palestinian elections in an aborted effort to promote the Bush administration's so called freedom agenda in the Middle East.
That gem helped bring extremist Hamas to power.
Publicly commending the demonstrators may actually fuel the protests pushing our allies over the cliff into the waiting hands of unknowns or "our worst nightmares." And we can then watch American foreign policy interests in the Middle East rapidly go down the drain because what will come to power in their wake may satisfy the Arab Street, but surely not Pennsylvania Avenue.
Simply put, understandable sympathy with the disenfranchised youth of the Arab world does not represent an effective foreign policy strategy.
In the case of Egypt every public utterance from the White House or State Department can be misinterpreted -- if there ever were a time for the strictest of measured diplomatic calibration, this is it.
Despite understandable sympathy for the unorganized demonstrators who rightfully demand reform, this is no time to go wobbly on Mubarak.
The United States has far too much at stake in the Middle East to commit another mother of all mistakes again -- especially in Egypt. Indecisive "on the one hand... on the other hand" diplomacy could have the unintended result of tossing the Mubarak regime possibly right into the ever-waiting hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, if no acceptable democratic secularist emerges.
It is premature to declare an end of the Mubarak regime in the wake of current unrest. The protesters and the government are engaged in a major test of wills for control of the streets of Cairo, and while Mubarak is reviled, he is not held in the same contempt as was Tunisia's Ben Ali.
Yet, this most serious domestic threat to his rule leaves Egypt without any readily identifiable successor that most Egyptians (let alone, Washington) would find a satisfying alternative given events on the ground.
Sadly, despite all we have invested in his government, Washington has never been able to budge an obstinate Mubarak into naming either a VP or a successor that the Egyptian people could embrace. Stubbornly, Mubarak has insisted he would find a way to bequeath his throne, somehow, to his son, Gamal.
But despite Gamal Mubarak's modernist, Western-oriented reform agenda and his determined effort to curry favor with ordinary Egyptians, the younger Mubarak has not earned their trust and has no military credentials to give him standing with Egypt's all important military establishment, which, after all, has ruled Egypt since its 1953 revolution.
Then there is Mohamed ElBaradei, the recent head of the IAEA, who is widely respected, but has no political apparatus to channel the simmering street into a political party -- yet. Time will tell whether ElBaradei can corral the forces unleashed. Despite his pedigree as a potential presidential contender, ElBaradei is viewed as a loner, and worse, someone who has little experience navigating Egypt's troubled political waters. And Mubarak has jailed or exiled the true democratic secularists with nary an effective, sustained protest from Washington.
Another contender waiting in the wings is Egypt's intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, who has the all-important support of the military. But it is far from clear whether the military leadership will be able to name its own successor to Mubarak, as it has done throughout Egypt's modern history, given the anger boiling over.
That leaves the oldest and strongest political party in Egypt -- the Muslim Brotherhood, whose leaders have nary a thing in common with democratic ideals, or for that matter, U.S. national security interests. Sure, the U.S. can and has quietly talked with the Brotherhood in the past. But occasional dialogue is one thing -- the imposition of Brotherhood rule is another, with all the consequences of of the Brotherhood's well-known embrace of virtually anything Washington would find objectionable.
Sadly, despite all the United States has done for Egypt, It may not matter what we say or do in the long run. Events are running at warp speed... too fast for Washington, and virtually out of sight at the "asleep at the switch" CIA, which likely failed to anticipate the rapidly deteriorating events.
No one in Washington should have been surprised how upset and angry average Egyptians are at their government. Given the choices, Washington is going to have to decide whether it is going to bet on ElBaradei, Suleiman, or the younger Mubarak, each of whom bring their own considerable political baggage.
In the case of Lebanon, the bloodless coup that has brought a Hezbollah-backed majority government to power is, to put it plainly an unmitigated catastrophe for the United States.
The new prime minister is nothing more than a puppet of Hezbollah, despite his U.S.-educated credentials. Tehran, not Washington, was the kingmaker here. And Iran's strategic Shiite imperialism is paying off big time.
How ironic that in just a few short years the U.S. helped orchestrate the Cedar Revolution that brought the March 14 democratic, anti-Syrian pro-Western government to power. We are now left holding an empty bag while Iran slowly transforms Lebanon into an anti-democratic extremist Shiite puppet state beholden to its strategic regional ambitions.
That result is not an acceptable alternative. Letting a democratic (albeit fractious) Lebanon simply evaporate would have enormous repercussions far beyond Lebanon's borders.
What happened in Beirut had nothing to do with angry Arab youth taking to the streets a la Cairo or Tunis. The best (if not only) option is to lend strong political, military and economic support to Lebanon's wilting March 14 coalition. Memo to Washington: Lebanon's democracy movement has sent an SOS -- no time to equivocate.
The U.S. has far less at stake in Tunisia than in Egypt or Lebanon. After two weeks of rioting, it is far from settled who will emerge as the beneficiary of the Jasmine Revolution. Former President Ben Ali virtually destroyed any organized opposition to him; and neither Islamists nor Democrats have the upper hand. It is too early to tell who will emerge as the victor. But whoever emerges will not be anyone Washington probably invested a great deal of time getting to know.
Whether in Yemen Libya, Jordan, or throughout the Gulf States, the movie is the same. Street protests, whether orchestrated or spontaneous, are shaking the very foundations of our allies. There are, have, and will always be riots in Arab capitals, but the so-called "Tunisami" wave engulfing the region is unprecedented.
Alas, Ahmadinejad and Bin Laden must be rubbing their hands together in the Islamic equivalent of Schadenfreude as they feast on the travails of their long-time adversaries.
Follow Amb. Marc Ginsberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@ambmcg