As the crowd swelled in Cairo’s Tahrir Square Feb. 10, chanting for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign, President Barack Obama sat aboard Air Force One viewing a flat-screen television, reduced to learning whether Mubarak would go, just as the rest of the world did.
The image of a U.S. president watching history unfold on TV underscores a central challenge for Obama in his first foreign policy crisis: How to respond to a revolution that is as fast-moving as it is historic, and on which the U.S. has less influence than some might like.
U.S. intelligence from Egypt once the protests began was strong, according to a senior Republican in Congress, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The administration’s response was less clear, ranging from support for Mubarak to a verbal shove toward the door.
The unsteadiness of the public messaging robbed the administration of an opportunity to exert more influence on the outcome through behind-the-scenes diplomacy, say some critics.
The administration “spoke like a Tower of Babel with multiple voices saying multiple things” when it should have spoken “with one voice,” Republican Tim Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor considering a run for the presidency, said yesterday on the ABC program “This Week.”
‘Nothing is Seamless’
The administration and its defenders disagree.
“Anytime you have a situation like this, you’re going to have some confusion, no matter how well oiled the machine might be and how seasoned the people are,” William Cohen, secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton, said in an interview. “Nothing is seamless. I think they corrected it as soon as they could.”
In the 18 days it took massive demonstrations to force a once-immobile American ally to relinquish power, the Obama administration revised its message several times. While talking points solidified around non-violence, universal rights and orderly political change, the administration’s initial response to the protests was muted.
First, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden defended Mubarak; days later, Obama called for a democratic transition. Then top envoys suggested it would be least disruptive if Mubarak stayed while elections were planned, before the White House called again for a “prompt” changeover.
‘Day to Day’
“This has been and remains a very complex and dynamic situation,” Philip J. Crowley, assistant secretary of State for public affairs, said in a Feb. 11 interview. “It was not like we had an existing operational plan that we could take off the shelf and execute. Everyone understood that a moment of history was at hand, but there was no way to predict from day to day how events would unfold.”
The Egyptian crisis is unlikely to be the end of regional troubles the administration will have to address without a playbook. Today, protests broke out in Iran, Bahrain and Yemen, as demonstrators inspired by the recent fall of leaders in Egypt and Tunisia were met by riot police.
“We live in a world that is getting smaller because of technology. We saw recently what was happening in Egypt, people with Facebook and Twitter led an entire revolution in their country and we were watching it live on television,” Obama told students today in Parkville, Maryland.
The administration’s response to the crisis that has rocked Egypt, an anchor of U.S. alliances in the Mideast, is in some ways a familiar Washington story of a White House trying to keep up with events it doesn’t control.
The administration’s learning curve on Egypt was made steeper because the foreign policy team has been consumed with the war in Afghanistan and the risks of a nuclear Iran.
From the start of this crisis, officials say, Obama, Clinton, Biden, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and other envoys talked to Egyptian counterparts almost daily, as U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey reached out to opposition figures, while being careful not to anoint a new leader. Clinton was on the phone yesterday with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and several European and Mideast allies, Crowley said in postings on Twitter. Admiral Mike Mullen, Obama’s chief military adviser, traveled to Jordan yesterday and Israel today to reaffirm U.S. support in the aftermath of the collapse of Mubarak’s government.
When it appeared to the White House that the Mubarak regime was not reforming quickly enough, Obama directed Biden to deliver a stern message when he phoned his counterpart, Omar Suleiman, on Feb. 8. Biden included a list of specific steps, according to an administration official, who requested anonymity.
At the same time, Middle East experts were invited to the White House to offer counsel. All the while, a debate was raging within the administration.
On one side, old-school “realists” -- including longtime Mideast experts at the Pentagon and State Department, as well as retired U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner and Dan Shapiro, a Mideast watcher at the National Security Council -- argued that continuity in Egypt, a moderate Arab ally, was essential to protect U.S. interests in Israel’s security, the peace process and containing Iran’s ambitions, according to participants in strategy sessions.
Another group of mainly political appointees at the White House and State -- including Samantha Power, NSC director for human rights; Jeremy Weinstein, NSC director for democracy; Gayle Smith, NSC senior director, and Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser -- wanted to telegraph more forward-leaning support for protesters’ democratic aspirations.
“There are different perspectives between the State Department and White House,” said Michele Dunne, a former NSC and State Department official, who was among more than a dozen Egypt experts invited by the NSC to offer counsel during the crisis. While declining to comment on individuals or specific debates, Dunne said the State Department and Pentagon were under pressure from allies such as Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia not to abandon Mubarak.
Several advisers who had long viewed Mubarak as an anchor to U.S. interests in the region, including former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, changed their views, arguing in meetings that the U.S. had to support the public’s democratic aspirations.
To expect the administration “to come out immediately against this longstanding idea of Egypt as a solid ally since Camp David would be damaging and also unrealistic,” said Leslie Campbell, director for the Middle East at the National Democratic Institute in Washington, who was invited to the White House twice in the last two weeks to offer ideas.
“The fact that the administration has gone from the idea of Egyptian authorities can do no wrong to advocating an immediate transition to democracy in a matter of days is incredible,” Campbell said.
House Speaker John Boehner, unlike Republican colleague Pawlenty, declined to criticize the Obama administration’s response. “I think they’ve handled what is a very difficult situation about as well as it could be handled,” the Ohio congressman said yesterday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program.
From his first public remarks Jan. 28, the president sided with calls for change. Speaking after Mubarak’s resignation Feb. 11, Obama praised the “moral force” of peaceful protests “that bent the arc of history.”
“There are very few moments in our lives where we have the privilege to witness history taking place,” Obama said. “The people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same.”
While Obama’s words have been clear and consistent, the message was muddied by multiple U.S. officials who reacted to confusing events in sometimes contradictory language.
On Jan. 25, Clinton said the Egyptian government was “stable.” Two days later, Biden declared Mubarak was not a dictator and needn’t resign.
The following night in a hastily arranged address, Obama said he told Mubarak to “take concrete steps and actions” toward democracy. Clinton appeared on that Sunday’s news shows insisting on an “orderly transition.” On Feb. 1, Obama said he told Mubarak that a transition “must begin now.”
The message was repeated for a week before Wisner, whom the administration sent to Cairo to urge Mubarak to step down, told a security conference in Munich that a stable transition might benefit from Mubarak staying in office while elections were planned.
The president was angered by Wisner’s message, according to an administration official who requested anonymity to discuss the president’s private reaction. It marked a low point in the administration’s response, said another official, who also requested anonymity.
Though the administration disavowed Wisner’s remarks, Clinton suggested Feb. 6 that an orderly transition would be harder if Mubarak were to resign, acknowledging she had been unaware that his departure might trigger elections in 60 days.
The U.S. doles out $1.5 billion in mostly military aid to Egypt annually, and while this has given successive administrations over the last three decades substantial influence with Egypt’s military leadership, it didn’t translate into the power to order Mubarak to go. The leverage of that military aid may have become weaker once Saudi Arabia pledged to replace any decline in U.S. funding.
The White House’s ability to influence events in the Mideast has declined in recent years, particularly with diminished credibility in the aftermath of the Iraq War, officials and analysts said. Mubarak, in a clear reference to the U.S., said on Feb. 10 that he wouldn’t bow to foreign pressure.
The U.S. is no longer “respected, admired and feared” in the region as it was in the 1970s and 1980s, said Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast peace negotiator and State Department official now a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington. “We’re really marginal to this right now.”
The administration has almost conceded as much, stressing that the crisis is an Egyptian one and the solution is up to the Egyptian people.
“Throughout these three weeks, we had to thread a needle between a government that had long resisted change and a people who wanted change immediately,” Crowley said. “We always understood that we could offer our best counsel to Egypt as a friend, but we could not influence actions and decisions.”
Obama on Feb. 12 called the leaders of the U.K., Turkey and Jordan to welcome the announcement by the Egyptian armed forces that they “will stand by Egypt’s international obligations,” according to the White House.