The National Security Staff discussed how the Obama administration might approach a future Egyptian government if President Hosni Mubarak steps down with a group of foreign policy experts in a White House meeting on Monday morning. But the Obama administration believes that Washington's fingerprints shouldn't be seen anywhere near what they increasing expect will be the end of Mubarak's rule.
The Cable spoke with three of the experts who attended Monday morning's session, which included Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, NSS Senior Director for Multilateral Engagement Samantha Power and NSS Senior Director Dan Shapiro. The experts inside the meeting represented a cross section of views in Washington and included several members of the bipartisan Egypt Working Group, a group that has been pushing for more administration clarity on Egypt policy over the recent months.
All three participants who spoke with The Cable said that the meeting was intense and constructive, that a real debate over the path forward for U.S. policy ensued, and that the White House staff leading the meeting indicated -- but did not say outright -- that they believed Mubarak was on his way out and that the administration was preparing for what comes next.
"We can't be seen as picking a winner. We can't be seen as telling a leader to go," said Rhodes, according to one of the expert participants. The Obama team has not told Mubarak either publicly or privately that he must step down, but has been constantly and consistently giving the embattled Egyptian leader direct and honest messages about what the U.S. expects, the White House staffers told the experts.
Multiple attendees said the White House staff expressed skepticism that newly minted Vice President Omar Soliman would emerge as the next leader of Egypt, but acknowledged that he would be influential during the transition process. "Transition" apparently is the new message word for the administration, allowing them to position themselves on the side of the protesters without throwing Mubarak completely under the bus.
The Carnegie Endowment's Michele Dunne, who attended the meeting, told The Cable that the administration officials first reviewed what the policy has been, traced the administration's activities as the crisis unfolded, and then repeated the official message that both sides should refrain from violence.
"The White House's position has improved on the issue but they're ducking the difficult question about whether they have to say anything publicly or privately about whether Mubarak needs to go," Dunne said.
She and others in the meeting argued for swifter and more forceful statements from the administration calling for Mubarak to step down, lest the U.S. be seen as having tried to prop up the regime in the eyes of the Egyptian people.
"What we were trying to tell them is that change is coming, the status quo is passing away, and the question is do we want to shape that change constructively or not," Dunne said. "For a long time, a lot of people have felt that question was just too hard."
Although the NSS staffers in the meeting held their cards close, another attendee said the impression was clear that the administration was now focusing on a post-Mubarak Egypt.
"There was no narrative of change or reform that can involve Mubarak," this attendee said. "They see Soliman as their guy for now, but there's also doubt about Soliman's ongoing legitimacy to be a caretaker for an orderly transition. There's also doubt about what an organized process would be."
The attendees reported that the White House staff did not indicate any specific entity or person they would back as the jockeying for power plays out. There's a realization that overt American support for any group could actually harm that group's standing. There's also a realization that the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to have an increased role going forward and that the administration had better start thinking about how to handle that eventuality.
One of those potential leaders, Mohamed ElBaradei, has been calling on the Obama administration to publicly denounce Mubarak. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey was in contact with a range of officials and groups both inside and outside the Egyptian government. The White House declined to say if they were reaching out to specific opposition leaders, such as ElBaradei.
"As a matter of course, we engage with both the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people -- including many political leaders and activists from a variety of backgrounds," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable. "We will continue to do so."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.