THE BLOG
02/10/2011 03:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Egypt's Power Transition: Changing Rooms On the Titanic?

When President Mubarak of Egypt was still clinging to power, many started writing his political eulogy. First and foremost was President Obama. By talking to the protesting people of Egypt in support of their cause, Obama may have doomed Mubarak's political future. Today, when the world is trying to digest the meaning of the power transition to the military, there are still open questions: Why did the U.S. take such a bold move in dumping Mubarak without knowing who'd come instead? Could it be that by replacing one absolute ruler with another - the commander in chief of the Army - the transition would tantamount to changing a room on the Titanic? Didn't Obama's advisors caution him that the U.S. policy change could render it bald from either side?

The old sages of Israel described a man who had two wives, one young and one old. The young wife wanted him to look more youthful and pulled his grey hair, while the older wife desiring a more mature husband pulled out his dark hair. The result was that the man was left "bald from both sides." In modern Hebrew that term is used to suggest a "lose-lose" situation.

President Obama took the commendable high moral ground by advocating for democracy, free elections and press in Egypt. Similarly, in the 1980s Ayatollah Khomeini urged his followers to "export the Islamic Revolution" -- his version of proper government suitable for other nations. President Obama is exporting the American values of democracy and urges leaders of the region to follow suit. We know what happened when the U.S. pushed for democracy in Iraq and in Gaza. The consequences are written in blood.

On the other end of the political spectrum stands foreign policy that was well described by Lord Palmerston (1784-1865), Britain's foreign secretary and prime minister, who once observed that "nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests." Henry Kissinger, President Nixon's Secretary of State publicly adopted Palmerston's doctrine. In the years to follow, the U.S. has walked the tight rope combining the two doctrines: advocating democracy but supporting regimes that were anything but. President Franklin D. Roosevelt remarked in 1939 that the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza "may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch."

Since the United States has significant interests in the Middle East, it has looked the other way for decades when human rights were abused in Saudi Arabia, or when the opposition was oppressed in Egypt. These regimes and others in the neighborhood were "our sons of bitches" and whatever they did was tolerated. Oil supply clouded ideological thinking.

Therefore, President Obama's sudden shift in policy, from interest-driven to idea-driven, was a surprising wake up call to the region. In 1979 President Carter misread the map, ignored the outcry of the Iranian people and continued to support the ailing Shah. The result of that mistake is still shaking the region. Was President Obama trying to avoid the 1979 Iranian mistake, by urging Mubarak to step down immediately, although the circumstances in Egypt are completely different? Iran of 1979 was not ready for the Western style culture that the Shah was promoting, while the rebelling people of Egypt fight for jobs, freedom and opportunities.

There are huge stakes in this game. Being the biggest Arab nation with more than 80 million people, Egypt has been a major pillar of stability for the past three decades. The Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement of 1979 helped both Israel and Egypt free resources from their defense budgets to build their respective economies. Last week, the Egyptian government sent a terse message against the U.S. when President Mubarak in a TV interview said that President Obama doesn't understand Egyptian culture.Yesterday, President Mubarak was even more bitter toward the West when he said in his televised speech that "I had never ever been accepting any sort of foreign intervention in Egyptian affairs." So one side of the lose-lose was reached, turning a long-lasting ally to a foe. Did the U.S. message gain the support of the protesters? Not according to TV reports which described unabated hatred to the U.S. "Bald from both sides" seems to have become a reality for the U.S.

The past stability in the region supports the regimes of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, both strong allies of the U.S. Not surprisingly, the U.S. policy shift is likely to cause sobering moments to leaders in the region that made it to the helm with a 99.9% majority in the polls or by just being the son of the previous ruler. President Obama just sent the message that strong ties with the U.S. are no longer a long-term guarantee. Like almost all investment literature warns you, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Local leaders are now likely to diversify their political investments and allegiances, and look for new more reliable allies. Prime Minister Taip Erduan of Turkey did just that when the European Union rebuffed his efforts to join, and he aligned his country with Syria and Iran.

Did the U.S. policy makers think it through? Did they know who is riding on the back of the emerging Egyptian tiger? Now when President Mubarak is history, who will be holding the reins? Will the Suez Canal remain open for U.S. warships going to the Indian Ocean in support of the war in Afghanistan or to demonstrate U.S. options against Iran? Will the new leader maintain the peace agreement with Israel, a strong ally of the U.S.? How long would the temporary control of the Army last? In the Middle East, there's nothing more permanent that "a temporary government."

Will the new leader continue to look West or rather read the changing interests map and steer East, toward Islamic Iran? Will he be our son of a bitch, or somebody else's?