President Barack Obama and vice president Joe Biden meet with advisors… (Pete Souza / MCT )
Reporting from Washington — The Obama administration's shifting response to the crisis in Egypt reflects a sharp debate over how and when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak should leave office, a policy decision that could have long-term implications for America's image in the Middle East.
After sending mixed signals, the administration has appeared to settle on supporting a measured transition for easing Mubarak out of power. That strategy, which remains the subject of vigorous debate inside the administration, calls for a Mubarak crony, Vice President Omar Suleiman, to lead the reform process.
According to experts who have interacted with the White House, the tactic is favored by a group of foreign policy advisors including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, national security advisor Thomas Donilon and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who worry about regional stability and want to reassure other Middle East governments that the U.S. will not abandon an important and longtime ally.
But that position has been harder to defend as Suleiman and other Mubarak allies appeared to dig in, refusing the administration's entreaties to undertake swift reforms such as scrapping the country's longstanding state of emergency. On Wednesday, Suleiman warned ominously of a coup unless the unrest ended. That prompted White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs to fire back that the Egyptians should "expand the size and scope of the discussions and the negotiations and to take many of the steps that we outlined yesterday — one of which is lifting the emergency law."
Suleiman's behavior reinforced the arguments of another camp inside the Obama administration, including National Security Council members Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power, which contends that if President Obama appears to side with the remnants of Mubarak's discredited regime, he risks being seen as complicit in stifling a pro-democracy movement.
Obama's own statements have evolved as the situation has changed, but they illustrate a gradual pulling away from Mubarak's regime and a call to begin the transition immediately. On Jan. 28, after Mubarak said he would not run for reelection in September, Obama said the Egyptian president "has a responsibility to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise."
But over the last several days, his administration has expressed increasing frustration with the slow progress, and Wednesday the National Security Council made its strongest call yet to speed up the transition.
Aides acknowledge privately that the differing views among Obama's advisors have produced a mixed message. Even Wednesday, as they continued to call for an orderly transition to democracy led by Suleiman, White House officials said the process wasn't moving fast enough.
"There is a realist camp who above all would like to see order," said Thomas Carothers, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has been in contact with the administration. "They acknowledge there has to be some kind of transition, but their emphasis is on an orderly transition, and they feel Suleiman can deliver order and is shrewd enough not to stonewall. On the other side, the idealists feel the time has come — that the old regime is finished … and that this is a true democratic outbreak."
The White House declined to elaborate on the positions staked out by Obama's advisors, though they acknowledged a robust and ongoing debate. But aides have revealed some of the disagreements in group meetings and one-on-one discussions with experts, including former U.S. diplomats.
The current situation reflects Obama's decision-making process as president. On key issues, he has encouraged open-ended debate, preferring to ponder all sides of the argument before, sometimes slowly, choosing a position in the middle ground. In deciding whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, for example, his decision reflected a compromise between his military advisors and those like Vice President Joe Biden, who argued that a swift drawdown was needed.
The turmoil in Egypt is faster-moving and volatile, with events unfolding hourly on television screens worldwide. As conditions in Cairo shift, so has the message coming from the White House. At times, it even seems contradictory.
In a meeting this week with security council officials, Middle East experts warned the administration that they "hadn't held the same position for many days at a time and stressed the importance of doing so," according to one person who was present but asked for anonymity because the group was urged not to speak publicly about the meeting.
"There was an acknowledgement that they had not been speaking with one voice and that they should be," the person said. "They acknowledged that some of their remarks have been unhelpful."