The most dramatic and traumatic moment of the campaign to unseat Egypt's Hosni Mubarak occurred when US President Barack Obama flatly told him to leave and called on Egyptian generals to remove him right away, along with his family, especially his sons Gemal and Alaa.
This action left European and Middle East rulers alike not only stunned but perplexed.
The Obama administration had never before taken this sort of action – even against far more tyrannical and brutal rulers, like the presidents of Iran and Syria. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad savagely suppresses demonstrations against him in Tehran while Bashar Assad uses a whole battery of extreme measures to intimidate opponents who might otherwise to take to the streets of Damascus.
Above all, they ask, what American interest was served by the removal of the long-faithful US ally in Cairo and accusing him of taking too long to institute constitutional reforms, when the rulers of Iran and Syria scorn the entire concept of political reform and yet escape US ire scot-free?
Or, to put it differently, what actions or inactions pursued by Mubarak and Qaddafi provoked the compulsion in Washington to be rid of them?
This leads to a host of other questions and uncertainties about what is going on in the US administration.
Is Barack Obama the master of his policies or is he working to another's script? The impression gained in various capitals this week was of confusion and contradictions.
Obama takes 12 days to mention Muammar Qaddafi by name
For instance, while the US president pushed for Mubarak's exit from the start, it took him 12 days to bring the same axe down on Muammar Qaddafi. It was only on Saturday, Feb. 26 that he suddenly pushed with all his might for UN Security Council sanctions against the Libyan ruler, his family and his close associates.
Even if Qaddafi wanted to do a runner, the sanctions which include a travel ban have made it impossible.
The governments watching events can't make up their minds what changed Obama's posture on the Libyan ruler and where he is going with it – unless he has decided on US military intervention. But the US president has fought so hard and consistently against the use of military force on every important issue, including Iran's drive for a nuclear bomb. Could he have had a sudden change of heart?
Clear contradictions within the administration came to light this week when suddenly, Wednesday, March 2, as the Arab unrest entered its third week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Iran of meddling in the protest movement and using Hizballah to shape its course.
A day earlier, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the Arab uprisings a major setback for Iran and for the past two weeks, Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has absolved Iran of a focal role in the troubles. (These contradictions are treated in a separate article in this issue.)
All this made it harder still to explain the logic behind the emergence of the extremist, dictatorial Iran and its allies – Turkey, Syria, Hizballah and the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad – as the big winners of America's unqualified support for popular uprisings in Arab lands.
WikiLeaks too let Iran and Syria off the hook
Is it by sheer chance that the pro-Western Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel are weakened? Or was this outcome deliberately engineered by the Obama administration?
Middle Eastern, even more than European, capitals are prone to suspicions of conspiracy. This time, they are gaining extra mileage from the skepticism of clandestine circles, some of them Russian, who hold that the turbulence hitting Middle East and North African regimes did not start in December, 2010 with the Tunisian outburst of dissent, but on Nov. 28 with the exposure by WikiLeaks of the first batches of private, secret and classified cables flying between US diplomats and the State Department in Washington.
None of those intelligence sources have so far accounted for the most monumental leak in history baring the secrets of every Middle East government but one – the Islamic Republic of Iran.
How did it happen that the secret relations of Arab rulers with Washington so embarrassingly saw the light of day, whereas Tehran's best friend Bashar Assad came out looking good?
Several Western and Middle East intelligence experts suggest that the groundwork for the uprisings that began in January 2011 was laid in November. They also trace its onset to the way Washington abandoned another pro-Western Arab leader, Prime Minister Sa'ad Hariri of Lebanon to his fate.
Shortly after the US president promised him his full support at a White House meeting on January 12, the Obama administration jilted Hariri and accepted the puppet government installed in Beirut by Iran, Syria and Hizballah. US support for the uprisings against pro-Western regimes followed soon after.
Iran allowed to line up naval bases opposite the US Sixth Fleet
Even the skeptics don't suggest that the current Middle East and North African troubles were part of an orderly scenario planned or initiated by Washington – only that the Americans were taken unawares time after time and whenever they tried to seize control of a runaway situation, they did so in a way that strengthened rather than weakened Iran. The clear outcome of all the disturbances and uprisings so far, soaring oil prices, is cited as pointing to this theory. It is a fact that the hike in prices to $100-a-barrel mark has compensated Iran for all the revenue lost as a result of UN, US and European sanctions.
Another pointer to this abstruse US policy is seen in the open door Washington gave two Iranian warships to transit the Suez Canal on Feb. 22, when US intelligence must have known their mission was to start building Iran's first permanent base on the Mediterranean at the Syrian port of Latakia – not just taking cadets on an tame training mission in Syria, as it was portrayed by Tehran.
The Iranian facility will stand foursquare with Syria's own fleet headquarters and, on the same coast, Russia's command center at Tartous for its Mediterranean and Black Sea fleets, opposite the US Sixth Fleet in the eastern Mediterranean. The new naval accord signed between Iran and Syria on Feb. 25, provided for the Revolutionary Guards to establish military depots at Latakia stocked with any weapons Tehran deemed necessary with prior notice to Damascus.
And the next day, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced that Moscow had contracted to sell Syria advanced Yakhont shore-to-ship cruise missiles with a range of 300 kilometers and the ability to fly under radar.
This was Russia's welcoming gesture for the Iranian base in Latakia.
Unease in Jerusalem
All over the Middle East, questions are being asked about how the Obama administration could let Iran, Syria and the Russians get away with these expansionist steps.
As part of the evaluation of the Obama administration's policy on the disorders across the Middle East as being pro-Iranian in outcome if not in intent, it is viewed by many as anti-Israel.
Although Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has avoided getting into a fight with President Obama over his preferential treatment of the Islamic regime of Tehran, he did drop some fairly loaded remarks on this score Tuesday, March 1.
Israel welcomes the suspension of Libya from the UN Commission on Human Rights and the world's condemnation of Libya for its human rights abuses, said Netanyahu. He went on to say that by the same token it should also condemn Iran.
That was all the prime minister said in public, but on the quiet he began taking stock. Last week, for instance, he dropped his senior political adviser Dr. Uzi Arad as head of the National Security Council.
The dismissal was presented as a sideways promotion to a senior diplomatic post. It meant however that the Netanyahu had dispensed with the services of an adviser who is an ardent champion of fully coordinating Israeli policies with the Obama administration, come what may.
In Washington, a representative group of Jewish-American leaders was received at the White House this week and voiced their extreme concern about the negative fallout on Israel's security from the extreme changes overtaking the Arab landscape.