White House, State Dept. factions divided over Mubarak exit strategy
Tuesday, February 8, 2011 E-Mail this story Free Headline Alerts
WASHINGTON — The administration of President Barack Obama has been divided over U.S. policy toward Egypt.
Officials acknowledged that the administration has failed to agree on a single approach toward the opposition campaign that seeks to topple the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. They said that while the administration agreed that Mubarak could not be immediately ousted, differences have emerged over when and how the 82-year-old president should resign.
"There is a faction that wants Mubarak to resign no later than the end of this month, and there's another faction that believes Mubarak should stay for at least another few months to ensure an orderly transfer of power that would ensure U.S. interests," an official said.
The division within the administration was seen after a mission to Egypt by Obama's personal envoy, Frank Wisner. The 62-year-old Wisner, a former U.S. ambassador to Cairo and today a consultant to Egypt's military, returned from several days of talks with Mubarak and the opposition convinced that the Egyptian president must remain in power until the end of his term in September.
"President Mubarak remains utterly critical in the days ahead as we sort our way toward the future," Wisner told a security conference on Feb. 5. "This is an ideal moment for him to show the way forward."
Both the White House and State Department disavowed Wisner's appeal for Mubarak to remain in office. Officials said Wisner did not represent the administration and exceeded his mission by expressing his views publicly.
"Former ambassador Wisner is not an employee of the government," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said on Feb. 7. "He was, based on his broad experience in Egypt, asked by the State Department — and I would direct you to the State Department on the specifics of anything regarding him — to travel to Cairo and have a specific conversation with President Mubarak. He did, and reported that back to us."
But other officials said Wisner's remarks were cleared with senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In a separate address to the security conference in Munich, Ms. Clinton stressed that Washington wanted to see an orderly and peaceful transfer of power in Egypt, which receives $1.5 billion in annual U.S. civilian and military aid.
"Hillary knew what Wisner was going to say, but the White House didn't," another official said. "This was a very embarrassing incident, and Wisner now no longer represents the president."
Wisner was said to have been told by Mubarak and his senior aides that Egypt would turn into a state similar to Iran and Turkey should the opposition gain power. The U.S. envoy was said to have been persuaded by his Egyptian hosts that the Muslim Brotherhood planned and dominated the opposition campaign.
"Wisner spoke to the White House about this but was ignored," the official said.
Officials said the lines of the division regarding Egypt remain unclear. But they said Obama's aides, particularly adviser David Axelrod and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, were pressing the president to demand the ouster of Mubarak within days or at most several weeks. These advisers were said to have concluded that the United States must be seen as welcoming reform rather than supporting the current Egyptian regime.
In contrast, Ms. Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have urged the White House to stop calling for Mubarak's ouster. Officials said the two secretaries were concerned over the prospect that Mubarak might immediately block the Suez Canal to U.S. Navy ships headed for Afghanistan.
Opponents of the immediate ouster of Mubarak also included Vice President Joseph Biden. From the start of the crisis, Biden, who has been in constant contact with Vice President Omar Suleiman, said U.S. interests required that Mubarak remain in power.
"Only he [Mubarak] knows what he's going to do," Obama said in a television interview on Feb. 6. "The U.S. can't forcefully dictate, but what we can do is say the time is now for you to start making a change in your country."