The Obama administration's handling of the crisis in Egypt has grown from measured and detached to frantic and contradictory during the past two weeks. The world has watched while the White House denounced its own special envoy appointed for the specific task of dealing with the unfolding mess. The president has made thinly-veiled demands for Hosni Mubarak to resign, only to backtrack and talk of long-term transitions instead.
Does this administration know what it wants from this crisis? Does anyone know what Barack Obama wants?
Obama and his team played it cool and calm for the first few days. Instead of demanding any specific outcomes, the White House demanded that Mubarak's regime respect the right of Egyptians to demonstrate and to participate openly through free elections. This echoed the positions of American administrations going back to Jimmy Carter, who elbowed Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat, into a deal with Israel and the first Arab-Israeli peace pact. After Sadat’s assassination, Mubarak took power, and a series of American presidents – Democrats and Republicans – pressed publicly for political reform while keeping ties strong between the United States and Mubarak's regime.
The demonstrators in the streets of Cairo didn't appreciate the cool and calm approach, and neither did democracy activists. They began to blame Obama for not taking more direct action on democratization by pushing the American ally from his perch. A week ago, Obama responded by demanding "an orderly transition" that "must be peaceful and it must begin now." The White House pushed this demand in the days afterward, with press secretary Robert Gibbs saying the next day that "when we said 'now,' we meant 'yesterday.'"
Almost immediately, this change in approach got results – although not the results Obama anticipated. The army, which had sat on the sidelines during the demonstrations and had even shielded protesters from Mubarak’s police on a few occasions, suddenly began rounding up foreign journalists, bloggers, and protest organizers. Whatever restraint Mubarak exercised disappeared after Obama's demand; the regime began hiring thugs from rural areas to clear the streets. By the end of the week, the White House had put itself in retreat on its earlier "now means yesterday" demands for transition from Mubarak's rule.
In the middle of this vacillation, Obama chose former Ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner to go to Cairo and handle Mubarak personally. Wisner, who has served as ambassador to five countries in twenty years, went to review the crisis and speak directly with Mubarak on Obama's behalf. Within days, Wisner publicly insisted that Mubarak needed to stay in office, saying that "President Mubarak's continued leadership is critical." The Obama administration had to distance itself from its own special envoy, who got promptly recalled and this week returned to his day job.
And what exactly does Wisner do these days? He works for the lobbying firm Patton Boggs, a company that advertises its connections to Mubarak regime, according to the British newspaper, The Independent. Patton Boggs "openly boasts that it advises 'the Egyptian military, the Egyptian Economic Development Agency, and has handled arbitrations and litigation on the [Mubarak] government's behalf in Europe and the U.S.'."
With those kinds of connections deep within the Mubarak regime, the choice of Wisner only makes sense if Obama wanted someone who could play ball with Mubarak. Sending Wisner to Mubarak had to be seen in Egypt as a gesture of conciliation, which was the opposite of the public message Obama had begun literally broadcasting from Washington. At the very least, one might have thought that the White House might have asked Wisner what he thought before sending him to deliver Obama's message, if indeed Obama didn't want to signal conciliation.
Now the White House claims that Wisner's mission has concluded and that all subsequent communications can be handled by current State Department personnel. If so, then why send Wisner at all? The current ambassador, Margaret Scobey, is both well-qualified and well-positioned to deliver Obama's message, having been in place for almost three years. Wisner, in contrast, had last been ambassador to Egypt 20 years ago. Either the Obama administration has an inscrutable secret strategy for handling the crisis, or they are making it up as they go along.
The sudden crisis in Egypt would test any president, and would demonstrate the limits of American influence and power in the internal workings of the Egyptian political establishment even with the most skilled handling. For that reason, Obama wisely chose to conceptually back democracy and free political expression in the first few days and refrain from demanding a retreat or surrender from any side in the dispute. Teddy Roosevelt once advised this country to "speak softly and carry a big stick" in its foreign policy; Obama instead spoke loudly and ended up demonstrating that he had no stick at all. This display of American impotence will leave a lasting impression in the one region where we can least afford it.