In her 2008 race against Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton famously used a ringing red telephone to question Obama's national-security chops. "It's 3 a.m.," a narrator warned over video of a sleeping child. "Who do you want to answer the phone?"
From the moment the demonstrations started 12 days ago, the foreign-policy team stumbled. Secretary of State Clinton said Hosni Mubarak's regime was "stable," and Vice President Joe Biden said Mubarak wasn't a dictator and shouldn't resign.
As the ranks of marchers swelled, Obama's instincts took him in the opposite direction. He quickly tried to push Mubarak out, first behind the scenes, then more publicly.
A measure of uncertainty in the face of the historic uprising is understandable, but American leaders have been serially certain. They have wholeheartedly embraced ever-shifting simplistic views, none of which fully reflects the obvious dangers ahead and the fallout from dumping an ally of 30 years.
It's almost like Super Bowl rooting. Packers or Steelers? Mubarak or demonstrators?
One result of turning on Mubarak came when press secretary Robert Gibbs said negotiations should include "non-secular actors."
Translation: The White House is ready to have the Muslim Brotherhood join the Egyptian government. Other officials confirmed that decision, even though a leader of the radical Islamist group said Egyptians "should be prepared for war against Israel."
He also said Egypt should close the Suez Canal and stop the flow of natural gas to Israel. Then Saturday, saboteurs attacked the gas pipeline to Jordan, and the one to Israel was shut as a precaution.
Meanwhile, the king of Jordan, the only Arab nation other than Egypt to have diplomatic relations with Israel, sacked the prime minister and met with Muslim Brotherhood leaders to try to stop demonstrations in his country.
Hello, the red phone is ringing.