Opinion: U.S. struggles to get it right


-- Watching the administration try to find the right balance in its response to the crisis in Egypt is like seeing the public face of the foreign policy establishment change before our very eyes:

First, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declares that Hosni Mubarak's regime is stable.

Next, Vice President Joe Biden declares that Mubarak's Egypt needs reform but that he is not a dictator.

After some more consideration, Clinton then allows that there needs to be an "orderly transition" from the Mubarak regime to something else. The president then calls for Mubarak to take "concrete actions" on his pledge for democracy.

Then, after millions take to the streets and Mubarak goes on TV to announce that he will leave -- albeit in seven months -- the president phones Mubarak again. This time, he lays down the law: It's time to leave.

Finally, the president goes on TV to tell the world what he had just told Mubarak: A quick transition "must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now."

There's a certain irony here. The measured Barack Obama -- whose administration inspired bold dreams of democracies while choosing subtle diplomacy when dealing with Hosni Mubarak -- had to finally lose the nuance.

"This is a president who actually stirred up some hope in Egypt," when he delivered his pro-democracy speech in Cairo in 2009, says Robert Kagan, a neoconservative who co-chairs a well-respected bipartisan working group on Egypt. "Yet the administration reverted to a classic American 'he's-our-son-of-a-bitch' policy when dealing with Mubarak."

The reasons aren't rocket science: Israel, the peace process, Gaza, Iran, to name a few. Besides, Kagan adds, it's not just the White House. "Mubarak has done a wonderful job of cultivating Congress. Even neoconservatives who are pro-democracy aren't so sure when Israel is part of the picture."

In other words, he adds, there's a "natural inertia" in any policy when the despot in question is an important geopolitical ally. "It's very hard to take actions that are difficult before a crisis justifies them." And no doubt about it, we now have a crisis.

Yet it's not as if the administration wasn't warned repeatedly to be very careful about Egypt. Kagan, along with Michele Dunne (who co-chairs the bipartisan working group), spoke with top National Security Council officials as far back as last spring, warning about a potential crisis. And in November, there was a session with senior Security Council staff in which the administration was asked to put pressure on the Egyptian government to lift the state of emergency, announce that neither Mubarak nor his son would run, and hold free and fair elections.

"They had furrowed brows," recalls Dunne. "We said we see the situation as getting very bad. And we told them you should be acting now to take steps. The protests are building. Nobody knew this spark would happen in Tunisia. But we warned them that sometime this year, we saw big trouble coming." Small wonder the group was invited back Monday to meet with national security officials again.

To be fair, the administration was not totally silent. When the president met with Mubarak in August 2009, he asked that the state of emergency be lifted. In 2010, the president and others raised the issue of free elections. And what happened? "Egypt stiffed us," says Dunne. "And we issued mildly critical public statements."

And of course, this stuff is isn't easy, even in the best of circumstances. Confronting governments -- especially ones that are helpful -- about their internal affairs is always tricky, and sometimes may not even be advisable. And there's an added consideration here. "If Mubarak keeps peace with Israel," Dunne says, "there's always that sense of 'don't rock the boat.' "

Internally, she adds, there were divisions within the administration between the stronger pro-democracy forces and those who were less willing to rattle an important ally. As a result, the policy looked very much like Obama: low-key, subtle, diplomatic. Issues were raised privately with Egypt, but there were no public scoldings. All of which, she says "is understandable."

The problem is that the message may have been too subtle to be getting through to Mubarak himself -- who, we have seen, is a very stubborn man. That is probably one reason why the president decided to punctuate his private message with the same one delivered to the world: Get out, now.

In the end, of course, there's nothing legal we can do to make sure that happens. We can continue to threaten to withhold the $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt. But at this point, there's no real way to get in front of the events unfolding each day. What the administration is hoping, says Dunne, is that "the Egyptian military will tell Mubarak it's time to go."

Yet there's a real question now that the violence has escalated: "I'm worried that the military doesn't stop it because they don't want to go further than they have already gone" in making concessions to the demonstrators, says Kagan. "It's ominous they're standing back and watching it."

His fear: The military, which is key to any transition, may be in Mubarak's corner.

For the last thirty years, the U.S. foreign policy establishment has been there, too.

But what's happening on the street is about the next thirty.