Inside the White House-State Department rift on Egypt

Inside the White House-State Department rift on Egypt

The White House and the State Department have been sending out different messages over the past few days regarding the U.S. position on Egypt. The seeming disparity between the focus and tone of remarks by officials from each part of the government has the Washington community wondering if there’s a rift between Pennsylvania Avenue and Foggy Bottom and who’s really in charge.

Internal disagreements on how closely to align the United States with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman and his self-interested reform process emerged into public view last weekend, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Munich Security Conference that the U.S. is calling on the international community to support the process initiated by Suleiman. Clinton also had to distance herself from the comments of the State Department’s chosen "envoy" Frank Wisner, who called for Mubarak to stay in power when he spoke at the conference in Munich.

Then, three days later, Vice President Joseph Biden spoke with Suleiman and gave him a list of further steps the U.S. wants him to take to open up the process, clearly expressing the official administration position that Suleiman’s process is not acceptable in its current form.

On a conference call with reporters Wednesday, the NSC’s Ben Rhodes said that the White House and the State Department have been "very closely aligned" and said that the difference between what Clinton said in Munich and what Biden told Suleiman three days later was a reflection of the changing circumstances on the ground.

"[Clinton] was just stating [in Munich] the matter of fact that Vice President Suleiman is the person conducting these negotiations for the government… Our response on Monday and Tuesday was in reaction to [Suleiman’s] statements and it was to say that those statements alone were insufficient because they didn’t constitute concrete action," Rhodes said. "I think it’s entirely consistent to again state support for a process of negotiation… but to then hold the government accountable in terms of identifying the kinds of steps that we believe need to take place and that the Egyptian people are calling for."

Clinton’s deputy chief of staff and new director for policy planning, Jake Sullivan, argued that the White House and the State Department have been aligned on the three core principles the U.S. government has been advocating for throughout the crisis: non-violence, respect for universal rights, and the need for political change.

"The theory of the case has remained consistent…and it’s something on which the Secretary, the president and all of the other national security team members have been aligned on. And that’s been true in the true public messaging. It’s been true in the private messaging as well, " Sullivan said. "The situation is changing day by day even as we maintain the same basic core to our approach."

Experts close to the administration agreed with that to some degree, but said that mixed messaging from State and the White House was muddying communication of those core principles. The biases are based in institutional cultures, they said, and the gaps between the two camps are real.

"You had a similar dynamic in the later years of the Bush administration. There was President Bush and [NSC senior director] Elliott Abrams at the White House still trying to push the freedom agenda and Condoleezza Rice at the State Department very much trying to play it down," said Michelle Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The messages out of the administration have been extremely confusing and I think they realize that."

Abrams told The Cable that there are probably divisions in both places. "Where the State Department came out of its internal debate is in one place, where the White House has come out is in a different place," he said. "In the end it’s about winning the hearts and minds, not of the Egyptian people, but of Obama, Biden, Clinton and Gates."

Deeper down in the administration, several official are playing influential roles in how the policy is being formed on each side. On the White House side, NSC Director Dan Shapiro, NSC Senior Director Samantha Power, and Rhodes have been leading the White House’s outreach with the foreign policy expert community and held their latest meeting with experts on Tuesday.

Attendees reportedly included Dunne, Abrams, WINEP’s Scott Carpenter, New America’s Steve Clemons, CSIS’s Jon Alterman, USIP’s Dan Brumberg, Johns Hopkins’ Fouad Ajami, and Human Rights Watch’s Tom Malinowski.

Inside the State Department, Clinton is being advised on Egypt by several officials who have deep experience with Egypt, including Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns, who had suggested Wisner be sent to Cairo to deal with Mubarak, and Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, among others.

"The people whispering in her ears are people like Bill Burns, who is preoccupied with most often trying to save us from ourselves," Carpenter told The Cable. "Burns is legitimately concerned with how this all unfolds, but his interest is in preserving as much of the status quo with the current government of Egypt as possible. Meanwhile, the White House is saying that it’s in our interest to build a new relationship because if we don’t it’s going to lead to something worse when the next government comes. So that leads them to conclude that they have to save State from themselves."

Feltman, a former ambassador to Lebanon, is increasingly seen as someone who understands the wider risks to U.S. foreign policy of being tougher on Suleiman and President Hosni Mubarak but is nevertheless looking for creative ways to square that circle.

"Some people on the inside say ‘Thank God for Feltman,’" because he’s trying to prepare State for a changed relationship with Egypt after Mubarak leaves and trying to look over the horizon, Carpenter said.

On the specific policy toward Egypt, the difference between the current thinking at the White House as opposed to at the State Department surrounds exactly how much leeway Suleiman should have in setting up the committees that will negotiate and then oversee the political reform process leading up the elections.

On his blog the Washington Note, Clemons wrote that a senior White House official told him they want to see the emerging transitional process look like a "potluck dinner," where everyone brings their own ideas and has real power off the bat, rather than a hosted "dinner party" where Suleiman decides the guest list, the agenda, and thereby the results.

"The State Department is advocating a hosted dinner, where the power still resides with the incumbents," Clemons told The Cable. "That’s not good enough for the White House."