"Our Mann in America" is a weekly column discussing the big talking points in the U.S. for an international audience. Jonathan Mann is an anchor for CNN International and the host of Political Mann.
(CNN) -- President Barack Obama took some awkward steps this week, inching America away from its 30-year embrace of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak.
"I think this is the most serious foreign policy crisis of the Obama presidency," said former senior U.S. diplomat Nicholas Burns.
Egypt has been America's most reliable ally in the Arab world, making peace with Israel, mediating with the Palestinians and even taking-up arms against another Arab nation, Iraq, after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
In return, Washington has essentially overlooked Egypt's oppressive system of government and offered Cairo billions in aid, planes and tanks, even the tear-gas used against demonstrators this week, reportedly marked "Made in the U.S.A."
Ending that kind of relationship overnight isn't easy for a superpower mindful of its broader obligations. America's other autocratic allies in the region, Jordan and Saudi Arabia among them, are watching Washington and no doubt looking for signs of loyalty. Israel is watching nervously for its own reasons, as its primary Arab partner is being pushed from power.
So the Obama administration has been pursuing an apparently split strategy. Publicly, the president has expressed support for both President Mubarak and also the protesters demanding his ouster.
Privately, Obama has dispatched a personal emissary and called Mubarak for extended phone conversations, urging him to avoid violence and prepare himself to give up power.
"This kind of subtle backroom diplomacy is a lot more effective than megaphone diplomacy," said Burns, the former U.S. undersecretary of state.
Many of the protesters in Egypt say they want Obama to explicitly abandon Mubarak, but that could appear as unwanted interference to both Egyptians and others in the Arab world.
"If President Obama had tried to come out and tried to stage-manage these affairs, there would have been push-back from the streets," Burns said.
So the conversations continue between Washington and Cairo: American generals talking to Egyptian generals, diplomats talking to diplomats and one president speaking to the other.
Obama is in an uncomfortable position, acknowledging an important alliance as it ends and trying to avoid being caught on Hosni Mubarak's side of history.