Inside White House Egypt Meeting

POLITICO

Among those who attended were the Center for Strategic and International Studies’s Jon Alterman, Dan Brumberg of the U.S. Institute of Peace, Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University and the Wall Street Journal, former George W. Bush White House Middle East and democracy advisor Elliott Abrams, Human Rights Watch’s Tom Malinowski, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Michele Dunne, and Scott Carpenter, a former State Department Middle East democracy official now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The one and a half hour meeting, with the National Security Council’s Dan Shapiro, Samantha Power, and Ben Rhodes, was off the record.

“The administration has had a horrible problem with message discipline,” one attendee said on condition of anonymity. “I think the people in the room from the administration are largely in synch, but projecting that out to all the parts of the administration is not working.”

“They believe they understand how the president sees it,” he continued. “But to get the Secretary of State on board and the spokesmen and everyone else – they end up having the policy which they believe is clear, which is perceived [on the outside] to be vacillating.”

The sense of mixed messages coming from the administration became acute over the weekend, a day after U.S. officials had made clear Washington was pressing for Hosni Mubarak’s swift exit from office.

While U.S. officials moved quickly to distance the administration from remarks made Saturday by White House Egypt special envoy Frank Wisner that Hosni Mubarak should stay on as president during the transition to oversee constitutional reforms, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to endorse a more gradual transition process in remarks over the weekend to a Munich security conference. She later seemed to defend the logic of Mubarak staying on during the transition in remarks to journalists traveling back to Washington with her on Sunday.

Vice President Joe Biden then took a more forceful posture Tuesday, pressing Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman in a phone call for a series of concrete and immediate reforms — which were detailed in an unusually lengthy and explicit White House readout of the call.

The NSC officials in the meeting Tuesday were very enthusiastic about Biden’s more forceful message to Suleiman, attendees said, which included among its explicit requests pressing for the immediate lifting of Egypt’s controversial emergency law, under which thousands of dissidents, bloggers and activists have been arrested, and which has been in place since 1981.

Some meeting attendees Tuesday were skeptical, however, that the administration’s mixed signals are the result of a message discipline problem, rather than “a sign that the administration cannot seem to make up its mind,” as Abrams put it in a blog post Wednesday.

The Obama administration, “like the rest of us, is trying to make adjustments as [events] go on. But it’s not a story they’ve mastered,” said Ajami, who wouldn’t discuss the internal conversation, but offered his view of the situation. “It didn’t originate in Washington, it came by surprise, they didn’t expect it.”

“I think they’re blowing in the wind,” an attendee put it more bluntly.

Regarding the administration treating Omar Suleiman as its Egypt point-man for managing the transition, “he’s the only horse available, is the way they see it,” Ajami told POLITICO. “The old man [Mubarak] is spent, the new forces are completely a puzzle to us all.”

Complete story via POLITICO

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