WASHINGTON — Last Saturday afternoon, President Barack 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, Obama's envoy to Cairo, had just told a Munich conference that Mubarak was indispensable to Egypt's democratic transition.
Obama was furious, and it did not help that his secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Wisner's key backer, was publicly warning that any credible transition would take time — even as 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 Joe Biden to take a hard line with his Egyptian counterpart, and he pushed Sen. John Kerry to counter the message from Clinton and 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 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 Clinton, 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.
In interviews, participants described those tensions, as well as offering the first descriptions of Obama's two difficult phone calls imploring Mubarak to take the protesters' demands seriously. In those conversations, as Obama pressed 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.
The officials said the hardest of those conversations came on Feb. 1, barely an hour after Mubarak announced he would not run for president again. In Obama's view, Mubarak still had not gone far enough. Describing the conversation, one senior official quoted Obama as telling the Egyptian president, "It is time to present to the people of Egypt its next government." He added, "The future of your country is at stake."
Mubarak replied, "Let's talk in the next three or four days." He added, "And when we talk, you will find that I was right." The two men never talked again.
However direct the conversations between the presidents, the public stance taken by the United States fed the perception that there was confusion on the Potomac. Time and again, the administration appeared to tack back and forth, alternately describing Mubarak as a stalwart ally and then a foe of meaningful political change. Twelve days ago, Obama was announcing that Mubarak had to begin the transition "now"; last weekend his chief diplomat was telling reporters that removing Mubarak too hastily could undermine Egypt's transition to democracy.
Inside the White House, the same aides who during his campaign pushed 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.
Those onetime campaign aides included Denis McDonough, the sharp-tongued deputy national security adviser; Benjamin J. Rhodes, who wrote the president's seminal address to the Islamic world in Cairo in June 2009; and Samantha Power, the outspoken Pulitzer Prize winner and human rights advocate who was once drummed out of the campaign for describing Clinton as a monster.
All agreed that Egypt, facing a historic popular revolt, needed to begin a genuine transition to democracy. The debate was how to deploy American influence on a volatile and fast-changing situation — to at least temporarily shore up a faltering ally proposing a gradual transition in the interests of stability, or to signal more support for a new generation of Egyptians demanding faster and more decisive change.
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