In US signals to Egypt, Obama straddles a rift

Last Saturday afternoon,
President Obama got a jarring update from his national security team: With
restive crowds of young Egyptians demanding President Hosni Mubarak’s immediate
resignation, Frank G. Wisner, Mr. Obama’s envoy to Cairo, had just told a Munich
conference that Mr. Mubarak was indispensable to Egypt’s democratic transition.

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 Egypt begin right
away.

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.

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 Iran, a contention the Americans dismissed.

However direct the
conversations between the presidents, the public stance taken by the United
States fed the perception that there was confusion in Washington.

Time and again, the
administration appeared to tack back and forth, alternately describing Mr.
Mubarak as a stalwart ally and then a foe of meaningful political change.

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.

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