The White House tried hard this week not to get swept away by the events in the Middle East. Stakes in Egypt are high and the interests deep, but the U.S. administration, officials made clear, has its own challenges and plans, such as the “Startup America” initiative or the snow storm that hit the country.
Pretty remarkably, at the Capitol Hill, despite the thickly partisan atmosphere, there weren’t much “off with his head” style comments on the Administration dealing with the crisis.
There were isolated calls to cut aid for Egypt to demonstrate the US does not support Mubarak’s regime, and some calls for Obama to put more pressure on Mubarak – but all in all, Congressional leaders supported President’s carefully intensifying criticism.
It was clear the Obama administration won’t be able to play impartial spectator for long: the question was what is the best way to convey the sensitive message to the octogenarian leader, without provoking reactions such as in Israel, that "the U.S. might dump us as easily as they did with their friend Mubarak."
The choice to prepare ground fell on Frank Wisner, former US Ambassador to Cairo, who retained his relationships with the Egyptian officials and the President.
"I doubt he actually told him to resign now, but they had this morning quite an extensive meeting with President Mubarak, and later on President’s decision was made," Stephen P. Cohen, President of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development, and a close friend of Wisner, told Haaretz
"The Obama Administration made an excellent decision in sending Frank Wisner to talk to President Mubarak," he said, adding that no "other diplomat has a better understanding of Egypt, and since he was the Ambassador in Cairo, he continues going there every year, sometimes more than once, and he has excellent relations there.
"It’s a great decision by President Obama not to send someone from his Administration that could be interpreted as a dictation from Washington," Cohen said.
Meanwhile President Obama called Mubarak himself, to ask him not to seek re-election. The hint was pretty obvious – it’ll be better for everyone if he stepped down now, but with all the excitement of the revolution, it’s less than clear who will replace him.
Michael Adler, Woodrow Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar, told Haaretz seemingly indecisive responses of the Obama administration this week were not surprise. "It was hard to know what to do because the event is so unprecedented and all the U.S. policies were built on stable Egypt with Mubarak in control," he said.
"They let things develop and try to avoid catastrophe. This crisis was about to happen, probably at the next presidential elections, but it happened earlier because of Tunisia," Adler added.
The U.S. does not see at this point ElBaradei as a probable successor of Mubarak, but the U.S. ambassador spoke to him today for the first time since his return to Egypt, and he is certainly might have an influence on what the protesters might do next.
“He certainly defied the U.S. over Iran”, Adler says. "But the conservative campaign against him, that he is agent of Iran, is ridiculous. He opposed bush administration over Iraq and he is disliked by the conservative camp, but he was in synch with the Obama Administration over the engagement with Iran and he wanted to prevent rush to war with Iran."
It seems that the US would prefer for the time being to deal with the newly appointed Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman, but it’s unclear for how long the current arrangement will hold. Stephen Cohen, who has also a close relationship with Suleiman and spoke with him yesterday, says he doubts the protesters will be satisfied.
"Transition is at works," he said. "But Omar is a very close confidante of Mubarak and they don’t want someone who is only a minimal change from Mubarak’s perspective. Omar wants the change.
His basic idea is to make sure there is no confrontation between Egyptian military and Egyptian people, because it will be a destruction of the Egyptian state. Change is not going to happen all at once, people have to digest it. New leadership has to emerge, other than the Muslim brotherhood.
The National Democratic Party is a dead duck. When the test came it was not able to do anything, to speak on behalf of its president. I have many positive feelings towards Gamal Mubarak, but he lost his chance. Mubarak’s first important decision was to appoint someone else as VP.
As President Obama said tonight, “many questions about Egypt's future remain unanswered." But at least President Obama, who was criticized much for his "weak" foreign policy, for the appeasement of dictators – proved himself this week as a smart leader who dealt with an explosive situation carefully.
There probably wasn’t much the U.S. could do with the historic process – but there is always a chance that a superpower can make the wrong move in the wrong time. In the first chapter of the Egyptian drama, the Obama administration played it well.
Israel probably wouldn’t determine its finale, but maybe it could be healthier for the Israeli leadership to start preparing to the Egyptian transition, instead of telling the other countries how they should treat the elderly dictator.
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