02.03.11

White House: Nothing We Can Do about the Egypt Revolt

Obama and his team have tried every trick in the American Power playbook to end the crisis in Egypt. Now officials tell John Barry the frightening truth: They can't do a damn thing.

Obama and his team have tried every trick in the American Power playbook to end the crisis in Egypt. Now officials tell John Barry the frightening truth: They can't do a damn thing. Plus, full coverage of the Egypt revolt.

Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Adviser Thomas E. Donilon, and a slew of senior officials in the national security field—plus the usual bevy of senators and representatives—arrive in Munich for the Wehrkunde Security Conference, an annual confab of defense heavyweights noodling the latest security concerns. So far, no cancellation is planned, says State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley—even though, apropos Egypt, the administration believes that "the next 24 to 48 hours will be pretty decisive," as one official involved in the debate here put it.

Photos: Demonstrations in Egypt

So why are Clinton, Donilon, and the rest of them going? Partly because Wehrkunde will see Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov exchange documents bringing into force the New START, the latest bilateral nuclear arms reduction treaty, while they discuss how to proceed on the nukes front. Partly because Wehrkunde is the big Euro talk-fest for political and military types. (In fact, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was scheduled to go but canceled, gratefully seizing Egypt as an alibi to ditch the gabfest.) And partly because the U.S. does have foreign-policy interests wider than Egypt, and there are virtues in demonstrating that.

But a further reason they're proceeding with the trip is that, frankly, as the administration here sees it, there isn't a whole hell of a lot more Washington can do in the Egyptian crisis—events are going to be decided on the ground. "Mubarak has chosen to dig in," the same official said. "The question is whether that is sustainable. And that's the debate inside Mubarak's inner circle." The answer to that question will come from Egypt, not from Washington.

For a Washington perennially convinced that the world revolves around Washington, this may come as a surprise. But, the official said, "We have to recognize that we have influence [in Egypt] but we can't overstate that influence. Ultimately, the players out there are going to make decisions regardless of our views."

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So there is a clear sense—certainly across people willing to talk in the National Security Council, and State and Defense Departments—that the administration has, at least in the immediate crisis, done what it can. President Obama has spoken with President Mubarak twice; Clinton has spoken with newly minted Vice President Omar Suleiman; Gates has spoken with Defense Minister Tantawi three times; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen has spoken twice with his counterpart, Lt. Gen. Sami Enan. Meanwhile, officials have been seeking—either through embassies or by phone calls from Washington—every intermediary they can. "We're not having a failure to communicate here," one official (a Paul Newman fan) joked.

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It does seem—senior officials won't admit this, but neither do they demur when it's put to them—that the White House had hoped Frank Wisner's mission to Mubarak would have more success that it did. Wisner, a former ambassador to Egypt and longtime friend of Mubarak, had the task of urging the Egyptian president to step aside swiftly. Even though the Army had announced Monday that it wouldn't use force against the demonstrators, on Tuesday Wisner only got half of what Obama wanted: Yes, Mubarak would go, but not until the scheduled presidential elections in the fall. "He [Wisner] was able to talk to Mubarak candidly; he gave his best counsel to Mubarak," said one official. "But Mubarak was pretty well dug in." So Wisner, having then talked equally candidly with Vice President Suleiman, "felt like he'd done what he set out to do," and was flown back to D.C.

Since then, the focus has been on reaching out to Mubarak's inner circle to persuade them that digging in is not sustainable, and will likely lead only to worse consequences for Egypt—and even for them personally.

That point is, in fact, the real concern. The administration does seem convinced—a judgement finalized at an NSC meeting on Monday, officials say—that Mubarak cannot salvage his rule. The longer he stays, the tougher the demonstrators' terms become. One senior official wondered whether, had Mubarak offered last week to quit at the fall election, if that might have been enough then. But now a September departure—or even August, as Prime Minister Shafiq is reportedly offering—is unacceptable to the emboldened opposition leaders.

"We have to recognize that we have influence [in Egypt] but we can't overstate that influence. Ultimately, the players out there are going to make decisions regardless of our views."

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"Mubarak is behind the curve," one official here said. "He is in the eye of the storm, but he has not really recognized that what he is dealing with is a new situation." He contrasted this with Jordan, where King Abdullah moved fast in dismissing his government.

But, the same official said, "There are limits to how far we can get them [Mubarak and his inner circle] to move." Especially, he said, because, "regional concerns" require that "the United States treats longstanding friends with dignity." So, "We are nudging in public, but pushing in private."

John Barry joined Newsweek's Washington bureau as national security correspondent in July 1985. He has reported extensively on American intervention in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Haiti, Bosnia, Iraq and Somalia and efforts for peace in the Middle East. In 2002, he co-wrote "The War Crimes of Afghanistan" (8/26/02 cover) which won a National Headliner Award and was a finalist in the ASME National Magazine Awards for public service and a finalist in the SPJ Deadline Club Award for investigative reporting.