U.S. handling of Egypt protests now alienating pretty much everyone

It’s a testament to what a giant shinola sandwich this crisis is that Obama continues to be praised by most prominent Republicans for his management of it despite shifting tactics, oh, say, every six hours or so. There are no good options, so why dump on him for reluctantly choosing bad ones? For instance, remember a few days ago when Gibbs was asked how soon a meaningful transition should begin and he said “‘now’ means ‘yesterday'”? Well, change of plans:

The Obama administration has reconciled itself to gradual political reform in Egypt, an approach that reflects its goal of maintaining stability in the Middle East but is at odds with demands of the protest movement in Cairo that President Hosni Mubarak relinquish power immediately.

A week after the Obama administration demanded a swift transition to a post-Mubarak era, it has dampened the sense of urgency and aligned itself with power-brokers such as new Vice President Omar Suleiman, who are urging a more stable, if much slower, move to real democracy.

But U.S. officials privately acknowledged that there is no guarantee that Suleiman, a former intelligence chief closely aligned with the military, is committed to substantial reforms…

In that vein, the administration now appears satisfied to have Mubarak remain as a figurehead as long as talks with the opposition continue. His resignation would trigger a constitutional requirement for elections in 60 days, and State Department officials warned that opposition parties may not be ready that quickly.

The new timeline for a transition, according to a senior administration official, is … “over the medium term,” whatever that means. So what happens when you go from calling the regime “stable” while protesters are in the streets, then demanding an immediate transition while Mubarak vows to serve out the rest of his term, then falling back to “gradual” transition language when your new would-be client, i.e. Omar Suleiman, proves uncooperative? Well, this happens:

[T]he improvisational — critics say closer to schizophrenic — nature of U.S. diplomacy during the crisis leaves the administration in the unwelcome position of having to make amends with whichever side emerges from the Egyptian tumult as the governing power. The anti-Mubarak forces clearly will wonder whether the White House ever had their back — but Mubarak and those close to him also will question whether Washington was ready to throw him over the side…

“These guys are going to be very unhappy that they carried our water for 30 years, much to their political detriment, and at their moment of truth we basically dumped them,” said Cook, adding that avoiding a final break with Mubarak “must be in the back of [the administration’s] mind.”…

But the impulses toward an embrace of the street have been mitigated by two factors: a belief, shaped by the invasion of Iraq, that American intervention would do more harm than good, and second by a need to hedge against the possibility that Mubarak will survive. Some administration critics viewed that as playing into Mubarak’s hands.

The regime’s tactic “is to oscillate between brutality and apparent compromise — using the protesters as hostages,” said Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution. “It’s a brilliant strategy of manipulation aimed both at Egyptians and Washington.”

The U.S. is still resisting protesters’ demands that Mubarak must resign, but if you think the matter is now settled and that we’ll be sticking to a go-slow regime-friendly approach from here on out, think again. After protests in Tahrir Square started fizzling yesterday afternoon, the crowd swelled anew today in celebration of the release of Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian Google executive who’d been in prison for 12 days for anti-regime activities online. With momentum shifting back to the protesters, who knows what tomorrow’s White House talking points will bring? “‘Now’ means ‘soon'”? “‘Now’ means ‘soon-ish‘”? There has to be someone left in this mess whom we can still alienate!

Here’s today’s trainwreck clip, in which Gibbsy is forced to gently scold new U.S. ally Omar Suleiman for refusing to make any meaningful concessions, including and especially the lifting of the country’s dictator-enabling emergency law. Biden even called Suleiman personally and asked him to rescind the emergency law “immediately.” No dice as of this writing, and no wonder: With the Muslim Brotherhood more of a threat than ever, there’s no chance the U.S. will risk destabilizing Mubarak and Suleiman by yanking the military aid we give them. There’s no leverage left here. We’re going to have to swallow this shinola sandwich no matter which side ends up serving it.