In U.S. Signals to , Obama Straddled a Rift Egypt
By HELENE COOPER, MARK LANDLER and DAVID E. SANGER
WASHINGTON — Last Saturday afternoon, President Obama got a jarring update from his national security team
Mr. Obama was furious, and it did not help that his secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mr. Wisner’s key backer, was publicly warning that any credible transition would take time — even as Mr. Obama was demanding that change in
Seething about coverage that made it look as if the administration were protecting a dictator and ignoring the pleas of the youths of Cairo, the president “made it clear that this was not the message we should be delivering,” said one official who was present. He told Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to take a hard line with his Egyptian counterpart, and he pushed Senator John Kerry to counter the message from Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Wisner when he appeared on a Sunday talk show the next day.
The trouble in sending a clear message was another example of how divided Mr. Obama’s foreign policy team remains. A president who himself is often torn between idealism and pragmatism was navigating the counsel of a traditional foreign policy establishment led by Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Biden and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, against that of a next-generation White House staff who worried that the American preoccupation with stability could put a historic president on the wrong side of history.
In interviews, participants described those tensions, as well as offering the first descriptions of Mr. Obama’s two difficult phone calls imploring Mr. Mubarak to take the protesters’ demands seriously. In those conversations, as Mr. Obama pressed Mr. Mubarak without demanding that he resign, the embattled Egyptian leader pushed back hard, arguing that the protests were the work of the Muslim Brotherhood and agents of
The officials said the hardest of those conversations came on Tuesday, Feb. 1, barely an hour after Mr. Mubarak announced he would not run for president again. In Mr. Obama’s view, Mr. Mubarak still had not gone far enough. Describing the conversation, one senior official quoted Mr. Obama as telling the Egyptian president, “It is time to present to the people of
Mr. Mubarak replied, “Let’s talk in the next three or four days.” He added, “And when we talk, you will find that I was right.” The two men never talked again.
However direct the conversations between the presidents, the public stance taken by the
Inside the White House, the same aides who during his campaign pushed Mr. Obama to challenge the assumptions of the foreign policy establishment were now arguing that his failure to side with the protesters could be remembered with bitterness by a rising generation.
Those onetime campaign aides included Denis McDonough, the sharp-tongued deputy national security adviser; Benjamin J. Rhodes, who wrote the president’s seminal address to the Islamic world in Cairo in June 2009; and Samantha Power, the outspoken Pulitzer Prize winner and human rights advocate who was once drummed out of the campaign for describing Mrs. Clinton as a monster.
All agreed that
Despite the fervor on the streets of
It was not only Mr. Wisner’s and Mrs. Clinton’s comments that threw the administration off message. Mr. Biden told an interviewer that he did not believe Mr. Mubarak was a dictator — words he quickly regretted, officials say.
As the administration struggled to craft a message, it was playing to multiple audiences — the crowds in
Mrs. Clinton and some of her State Department subordinates wanted to move cautiously, and reassure allies they were not being abandoned, in part influenced by daily calls from Israel,
In fact, some of the differences in approach stemmed from the institutional biases of the State Department versus those of the White House. The diplomats at the State Department view the Egyptian crisis through the lens of American strategic interests in the region, its threat to the 1979 peace accord between
The White House shared those concerns, officials said, but workers in the West Wing also worried that if Mr. Obama did not encourage the young people in the streets with forceful, even inspiring language, he would be accused of abandoning the ideals he expressed in his 2009 speech in
For her part, Mrs. Clinton, too, has called for radical change in the Arab world. In January, on a trip to
But she also expressed concern later that a hasty exit of Mr. Mubarak could complicate
For Mr. Obama, the turning point came on Feb. 1, when he watched Mr. Mubarak give a defiant speech on television and then called him to make the point that if the Egyptian leader thought he could avoid reform, he was mistaken. The next morning, he instructed his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, to not to shy away from his demand that day that meaningful reform must begin “now.”
“I want you to be clear that I meant what I said when I said ‘now,’ ” Mr. Obama told his aides, according to a senior administration official. The result was Mr. Gibbs’ line that “now started yesterday,” which appeared to harden the administration’s position even more.
But it also angered the administration’s allies, who made their displeasure clear in a flood of calls. It was in that tense atmosphere that Mrs. Clinton left on Feb. 4 for a security conference in
The surprise speaker was Mr. Wisner, who addressed the group by video link just days after returning from
Mr. Wisner, a former ambassador to Egypt, comes from the old school of nurturing American relationships. And he warned the audience in
Mrs. Clinton’s message, officials said, was conflated later with Mr. Wisner’s. Administration officials insist that Mr. Obama was angered by Mr. Wisner’s remarks, not by Mrs. Clinton’s. But speaking to reporters on the flight home from Munich, Mrs. Clinton echoed at least part of Mr. Wisner’s argument, warning that Mr. Mubarak’s abrupt resignation could prompt a chain of events, stipulated by the Egyptian Constitution, which would lead to elections in two months — far too short a time.
A spokesman for Mrs. Clinton, Philippe Reines, said, “The secretary sees the need for profound transformation in the
The White House recruited Senator Kerry, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who appeared on the NBC News program “Meet the Press” and declared that Mr. Wisner’s comments “just don’t reflect where the administration has been from day one.”
In an interview on Friday, Mr. Kerry played down the administration’s mixed messages. “A little confusion came out of
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