If there is anything worse than trying to manage someone else''s politics, it is trying to micro-manage them.

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The latest from the New York Times indicates that the American government is again putting its reputation on the line. Not only are its chief honchos telling the Egyptians what they must be doing, but the Americans are arguing among themselves in public about the details.

"The latest challenge (to U.S. policy) came Saturday afternoon when the man sent last weekend by President Obama to persuade the 82-year-old leader to step out of the way, Frank G. Wisner, told a group of diplomats and security experts that “President Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical — it’s his opportunity to write his own legacy."

Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton immediately tried to recalibrate those remarks, repeating the latest iteration of the administration’s evolving strategy. At a minimum, she said, Mr. Mubarak must move out of the way so that his vice president, Omar Suleiman, can engage in talks with protest leaders over everything from constitutional changes to free and fair elections."

We have already seen the risk in micro-managing a polity not well understood by outsiders in the best of times, and currently in something between flux and chaos. The management does not work, and the reputation of the aspiring manager suffers from severe criticism. The Egyptian Foreign Office has expressed its opposition to American efforts to involve themselves, and President Obama''s public calls on President Mubarak to step down immediately are being broadcast again and again. One can expect Obama''s efforts to be expanded and exaggerated in unfriendly media. Majorities in Muslim countries that believe Americans and Israelis produced 9-11 will have no trouble making Barack Obama look like a dictator from afar.

Obama and his Secretary of State also fumbled in the case of Israel and the Palestinians. By insisting on a halt of construction in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem they added an item to the Palestinian agenda of non-negotiable demands, and eventually had swallow construction in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank.

A useful view of Egypt is hard to obtain by an outsider, or even by an insider. Despite recurring demands for the kind of democracy that does not exist anywhere in a Muslim country, and may be unattainable under Islam, the current regime might ride out the popular protest. Mubarak himself may go away for medical treatment or spend time at one of his palaces far from a large city, while the military and civilian elites who depend on the current regime keep it going. My expectations include a combination of repression and reforms, with the latter tending toward the superficial.

Perhaps I have lived too long in the Middle East to share the optimism of Americans and Europeans. The dreamers who work for the White House and the media have expressed their wish that an Egyptian revolution will not resemble those of France, Russia, or Iran, but the flower revolutions of post-Soviet Eastern Europe. To them I urge a consideration of differences between the cultures nourished by Christianity and Islam. The Churches of Poland and the Ukraine may not preach like those of Boston, but neither do they not resemble those of the Inquisition, or preach like the Mosques of the Middle East.

On Israel and Palestine, American meddlers should notice that leaders of both regimes prefer the status quo to what outsiders would demand of them. Israelis do not trust Palestinians, and Palestinians do not trust one another. The people running the West Bank are holding on to power with the help of resources, training, and cooperation from Americans, Europeans, Jordanians, and Israelis, and they have no hope of gaining control of Gaza.

The latest indication that Palestinians prefer the status quo is the rejection of an economic package produced by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Tony Blair, in his role as the envoy of the "Quartet" (United States, European Union, Russia and United Nations) that has taken on itself the mentoring of Israel and Palestine.

According to the lead Palestinian negotiator, Netanyahu is playing games and haggling: "If he wants to build confidence he should stop settlement construction."

Thomas Friedman and his audience might applaud that statement as a good guide to what Israel must do. I view it as the West Bank leadership''s evasion of a diplomatic process that they cannot pursue without risking the loss of everything to other Palestinians.

The Quartet has rejected the Palestinians'' hope of a short cut via international recognition of a state they cannot control, and "called on both the Israelis and the Palestinians to reach a negotiated solution by September 2011. It said it planed with the help of its envoys to work with both parties before its next gathering in March."

Lip service, graceful exit, recognition of reality, or serious intent to try again? 

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position or viewpoint of The Jerusalem Post. Blog authors are NOT employees, freelance or salaried, of The Jerusalem Post.

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