The Obama administration's shifting response to the crisis in Egypt reflects a sharp debate over how and when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak should leave office, a policy decision that could have long-term implications for America's image in the Middle East.
After sending mixed signals, the administration has appeared to settle on supporting a measured transition for easing Mubarak out of power. That strategy, which remains the subject of vigorous debate inside the administration, calls for a Mubarak crony, Vice President Omar Suleiman, to lead the reform process.
According to experts who have interacted with the White House, the tactic is favored by a group of foreign policy advisors including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, national security advisor Thomas Donilon and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who worry about regional stability and want to reassure other Middle East governments that the U.S. will not abandon an important and longtime ally.
But that position has been harder to defend as Suleiman and other Mubarak allies appeared to dig in, refusing the administration's entreaties to undertake swift reforms such as scrapping the country's longstanding state of emergency. On Wednesday, Suleiman warned ominously of a coup unless the unrest ended. That prompted White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs to fire back that the Egyptians should "expand the size and scope of the discussions and the negotiations and to take many of the steps that we outlined yesterday — one of which is lifting the emergency law."
Suleiman's behavior reinforced the arguments of another camp inside the Obama administration, including National Security Council members Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power, which contends that if President Obama appears to side with the remnants of Mubarak's discredited regime, he risks being seen as complicit in stifling a pro-democracy movement.
Obama's own statements have evolved as the situation has changed, but they illustrate a gradual pulling away from Mubarak's regime and a call to begin the transition immediately. On Jan. 28, after Mubarak said he would not run for reelection in September, Obama said the Egyptian president "has a responsibility to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise."
But over the last several days, his administration has expressed increasing frustration with the slow progress, and Wednesday the National Security Council made its strongest call yet to speed up the transition.
Aides acknowledge privately that the differing views among Obama's advisors have produced a mixed message. Even Wednesday, as they continued to call for an orderly transition to democracy led by Suleiman, White House officials said the process wasn't moving fast enough.
"There is a realist camp who above all would like to see order," said Thomas Carothers, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has been in contact with the administration. "They acknowledge there has to be some kind of transition, but their emphasis is on an orderly transition, and they feel Suleiman can deliver order and is shrewd enough not to stonewall. On the other side, the idealists feel the time has come — that the old regime is finished … and that this is a true democratic outbreak."
The White House declined to elaborate on the positions staked out by Obama's advisors, though they acknowledged a robust and ongoing debate. But aides have revealed some of the disagreements in group meetings and one-on-one discussions with experts, including former U.S. diplomats.
The current situation reflects Obama's decision-making process as president. On key issues, he has encouraged open-ended debate, preferring to ponder all sides of the argument before, sometimes slowly, choosing a position in the middle ground. In deciding whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, for example, his decision reflected a compromise between his military advisors and those like Vice President Joe Biden, who argued that a swift drawdown was needed.
The turmoil in Egypt is faster-moving and volatile, with events unfolding hourly on television screens worldwide. As conditions in Cairo shift, so has the message coming from the White House. At times, it even seems contradictory.
In a meeting this week with security council officials, Middle East experts warned the administration that they "hadn't held the same position for many days at a time and stressed the importance of doing so," according to one person who was present but asked for anonymity because the group was urged not to speak publicly about the meeting.
"There was an acknowledgement that they had not been speaking with one voice and that they should be," the person said. "They acknowledged that some of their remarks have been unhelpful."
Early on, the administration stressed its alliance with Mubarak and his stabilizing force in the region, but as the protests in Egypt grew, the White House began seeking change.
In a weekend interview, Clinton said that countries evolve "at different paces" — a remark seen as an endorsement of methodical transition — and said her priority was to "protect the security and interests of the United States."
But on Tuesday, Biden spoke to Suleiman and told him that a state of emergency giving the regime broader powers must be repealed "immediately." The same day, Gibbs refuted Suleiman's contention that the street protests are not genuine, but rather driven by outside forces.
In a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, security council member Rhodes, who was the lead writer of Obama's 2009 speech to the Muslim world from Cairo, said the Mubarak government wasn't moving quickly enough.
"This has to be a period of political change in Egypt," Rhodes said, adding that the "transition must begin without delay and produce immediate, irreversible progress that the people of Egypt can see and are demanding.
"Thus far it's clear that while the government has entered into a period of negotiation with the opposition and dialogue, what they put forward is not yet meeting that threshold of change in the eyes of the Egyptian people," Rhodes said.
Inside the White House, there is no disagreement over whether Mubarak must leave. Instead, the debate focuses on four questions: the speed at which the regime repeals its longstanding emergency law; the pace of the transition; the extent to which opposition groups such as the banned Muslim Brotherhood should be included in the negotiations; and whether Mubarak must step aside now or can take on a temporary role while Suleiman runs the reform process.
The differing priorities reflect the background and interests of the various players, many of whom hold deep convictions rooted in their lives' work.
Rhodes was one of the writers of the 9/11 Commission report as well as the Cairo speech, meant to broadcast a new day in relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world. Charged with helping craft Obama's message on foreign policy since the 2008 election campaign, his job is partly keeping the president's message consistent.
Power, a noted human rights scholar, first met Obama when he reached out to her after reading her Pulitzer Prize-winning book on genocide. During the presidential campaign, she resigned from Obama's team after being quoted as calling Clinton "a monster." She later apologized.
The other camp includes Dennis Ross, a former Middle East peace negotiator for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Ross, who has strong ties to Israel, is the author of a 2007 book that advised against treating the Muslim Brotherhood as a potential partner in Egypt's political future, noting the group's refusal to renounce violence "as a tool of other Islamists."
Apart from managing the crisis, the White House is consulting with outside interest groups and foreign governments to ensure that its message is getting through.
National Security Council member Daniel Shapiro has sought to reassure pro-Israel groups that the inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt's political negotiations would not undermine the country's peace treaty with Israel, according to people who have talked with him. Shapiro, who led outreach to Jewish voters in Obama's presidential campaign, has tended to the president's relations with Israel and other regional partners, as well as with Jewish leaders in the U.S.