Gates and Mullen in close contact with Egyptian military

Gates and Mullen in close contact with Egyptian military

The Obama administration was caught by surprise on Thursday night when President Hosni Mubarak spoke to the Egyptian people and initially declined to step down as leader of the country. Following the speech, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen quickly phoned their counterparts in the Egyptian military.

Today, the military assumed control of the Egyptian government and Vice President Omar Suleiman announced in a recorded statement that Mubarak had stepped down from the presidency. "Secretary Gates spoke with [Defense Minister] Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi again last night," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell confirmed to The Cable.

"It was his fifth phone conversation with the Egyptian defense minister since the situation in Egypt began."

Captain John Kirby, spokesman for the Joint Chiefs, confirmed to The Cable that Mullen called Egyptian Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Sami Anan following the Mubarak speech. Mullen and Anan have spoken four times since Jan. 25, and the last call before Thursday night was on Saturday, Feb. 5, Kirby said.

Both Morrell and Kirby declined to give details on the substance of the calls.

Press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters on Friday morning that President Barack Obama did not call Mubarak after the speech. The last reported call between Vice President Joseph Biden and Suleiman was Feb. 8, when Biden pressed Suleiman to expand his dialogue with opposition groups.

The Gates and Mullen phone calls are emblematic of the sustained but quiet engagement with their military counterparts that the Pentagon has been undertaking throughout the crisis. That effort has been especially important in recent days, as the military’s role has increased and its allegiances have come under closer scrutiny.

The Pentagon even sent out a quiet request to scores of U.S. military officers last week, asking them to contact any Egyptian military members they might know through past associations at American military colleges, the Washington Post reported.

The officers weren’t told to deliver any specific messages. The outreach has been rather about collecting information from the Egyptian military and making sure that the military-to-military relationship remained intact, a Pentagon official said, adding that similar outreach has occurred between the Pentagon and its interlocutors in other countries, including Israel.

The White House and the State Department have disagreed on how much pressure to place on Mubarak and Suleiman. The Pentagon has sided mostly with State, arguing for more support of existing Egyptian institutions of power, especially the military. Some observers see the Pentagon as inclined to favor supporting the Egyptian military due its own interests and natural institutional biases.

"The Pentagon is simply so used to letting the Egyptian military have what they want," said one former U.S. official who dealt with the Pentagon on Egypt. "The Pentagon has wanted to keep their involvement at a strictly military-to-military level. So they are reluctant to be part of diplomacy at the top level, but insistent in being engaged in their own diplomacy for their own interest."

Regardless, the direct intervention of top Pentagon and U.S. military officials at key times throughout the crisis may have influenced the Egyptian military’s behavior at key junctures, such as when the Egyptian military was implicated in the crackdown of journalists and human rights activists last weekend. Pentagon officials believe their outreach contributed to the relative restraint of the Egyptian Army.

It’s unclear whether Gates and Mullen’s telephone diplomacy last night actually influenced the events that unfolded only hours later. But the Pentagon’s relationships with the Egyptian military are now among the most crucial avenues of communication and influence for U.S. policy toward Egypt going forward.