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Hillary Clinton’s Key Role in the Response to the Egypt Crisis *updated*

February 2, 2011

While the administration’s initial response appeared one step behind events at first, Secretary Clinton played a huge role in articulating the administration’s policy on the Sunday talk shows last weekend- a harder line against Mubarak and unequivocal support for the protesters and a transition to a full democratic system. While it’s easy to criticize the administration- any administration- for not calling for Mubarak’s ouster the fact is that there is no magic DiploWand that Secretary Clinton can wave to make that come about.

While I think Obama’s remarks have been too cautious, there is no denying that the U.S. has to tread a careful line between supporting principles of democracy, freedom of expression and human rights while also being cognizant of the fact that if the U.S. is seen as being a not-so-hidden hand trying to manipulate events in our favor, it could end up undermining the democratic movement we claim to support. The protests are not about the United States, Israel, or the faux choice between “stability” and Islamic fundamentalism, irrespective of what many American commentators are saying.

Politico has an article up about the key role Secretary Clinton is playing:

Confronted with the most acute foreign policy crisis of his administration, President Barack Obama is increasingly relying on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her advice and connections – including a 20 year friendship with the family of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that has drawn fire from human rights advocates.

It was Clinton who came up with the idea of sending Frank Wisner, U.S. ambassador to Egypt in the 1980’s, to Cairo to deliver Obama’s pointed request that Mubarak not seek a new term as the country’s leader, an administration official told POLITICO.

And it was Clinton whom Obama dispatched to appear on five Sunday morning shows to send a not-so-subtle message to the tottering dictator that the time had come for a “peaceful transition to real democracy,” not Mubarak’s “faux democracy.”


But in the last week, Clinton has been at the center of Obama’s frantic attempt to keep pace with spiraling events – including a critical meeting in the Oval Office last Saturday when Obama deputized Clinton to clarify the administration’s confused response to the crisis.

As importantly, she is also providing valuable insights into Mubarak’s behavior, according to officials. Those insights are honed from years of contact with the 82-year-old Egyptian leader and his much younger wife, a relationship that deepened during Clinton’s 1999 trip to Egypt with her daughter Chelsea.

“Hillary knows Mubarak is a dictator and they aren’t close friends,” says a former top U.S. diplomat with ties to Obama. “But she knows him well enough – well enough to know this guy isn’t Saddam Hussein and he’s probably the one who told the army not to fire into the crowd.”

Clinton is even closer to Suzanne Mubarak, supporting her human rights work, including initiatives geared at reducing youth unemployment and campaigns to stop human trafficking and the sexual mutilation of women.

“Mubarak needs to be shown a path out of this, and Hillary’s trying to find a way to do that,” added the official, who says Clinton is also sharing her experience with other Mideast leaders who may be facing similar upheaval. “She knows a lot of these people on a personal level.”

It’s not clear if Clinton has reached out to either of the Mubaraks since the protests began last month, although she has been working the phones, according to aides.

But proximity has its perils. In a 2009 interview with Al Arabiya television, Clinton defended the relationship with the Egyptian president and his wife when asked about human rights abuses by the Mubarak regime, saying, “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family. So I hope to see him often here in Egypt and in the United States.”

That led to a Washington Post editorial questioning her ability to challenge autocratic regimes — and raised questions about Clinton’s repeated claim that the administration has long pressured Mubarak to enact much needed democratic and economic reform.


White House and State Department officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have made it clear that Mubarak’s days are numbered. Wisner, for his part, is still in Cairo hoping to make that case to Mubarak again, according to published accounts.

In the meantime, both Obama and Clinton are essentially spectators, watching Mubarak’s Tuesday night speech to his country in the White House Situation Room Tuesday, according to aides.

The frustration is not new. Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks last year portray Clinton attempting to walk the same tightrope as Obama, who softened the hard line on human rights adopted by President George W. Bush, in favor of a “soft power” attempt to convince Mubarak to voluntarily adopt democratic reforms.

In her first meeting with Mubarak as secretary, the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey asked Clinton to refrain from even praising Mubarak’s recent release of a political prisoner – for fear of souring the relationship from the start, according to the leaked cables.

It’s not clear what Clinton said to Mubarak in their private sit-down but the secretary did discuss human rights – and emerged from the meeting to tell reporters she hoped her advice “will be taken in the spirit in which it is offered, that we all have room for improvement.”

She was far more forceful in interviews last weekend, telling NBC, “We want to see free and fair elections, and we expect that will be one of the outcomes of what is going on in Egypt right now.”


But Clinton, who entered Foggy Bottom without the policy agenda of many of her predecessors, has never occupied such a central role in such an unpredictable situation. That’s because the administration has never faced a foreign crisis of this magnitude that requires “all hands on deck,” according to a senior administration official.

But it’s also because the pragmatic Clinton is “one of the few remaining grown-ups,” in the words of one former State Department higher-up, who can speak authoritatively at a time of rapid staff turnover in the West Wing.

“She’s the obvious choice to adopt this role,” says Daniel Kurtzer who served as ambassador to Egypt under Bill Clinton and as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Israel.

“You need someone out there who understands the complexity of this situation,” adds Kurtzer. “And she’s one of the only people who could step in. She knows all of these players very well and that’s critical at a time when the administration is presented with so few good alternatives.”

Read more:
[emphasis added]

The administration’s options are complicated by the fact that for thirty years we have financially and militarily supported a repressive autocrat who stifled freedom of expression, held sham elections and imprisoned and even tortured his political opponents. This conflict with our oft-stated ideals of democracy is not lost on the Arab world and now would probably be a good time to ask whether our decades-old policy has in fact played a role in fomenting extremism in the region.

While Hosni Mubarak cooperated with the U.S. War on Terror and is lauded, helping to create “stability” (there’s that word again) in the region and helping with Mideast Peace, what does that really mean? Yes, intelligence and military cooperation has been excellent and yes, Mubarak is a secular leader, but at what price? Again, has imprisoning key members of the Muslim Brotherhood (and other groups focused on political Islam) really kept extremism at bay or has it just kept it bubbling beneath the surface? It’s important to point out that while the Brotherhood is certainly not a secular organization, Mubarak and the US have used the threat posed by the Brotherhood to justify maintaining the status quo in Egypt and there has been some good commentary about how the threat posed by the Brotherhood has been over-hyped and over-simplified to a point where getting at the truth has become difficult. Dictators have a tendency to line their pockets (and Swiss bank accounts) with U.S. cash while the gap between ultra-rich and those suffering in abject poverty widens, leading to the type of economic and social instability we are now witnessing not just in Egypt but in Tunisia, Jordan, Algeria, etc.

UPDATED: I wondered how long it would take before some neocons really stepped up their fear-mongering campaign regarding Egypt becoming the next Iran. These arguments are painfully transparent and can be summed up as: Mubarak may have been an oppressive, corrupt dictator that trounced on his people’s rights but he was our dictator and most importantly, he signed a peace treaty with Israel, so, we should support him. The Iranian Revolution parallel really isn’t all that much of a parallel although it does highlight how our support for, if not outright propping up, dictators can turn around and bite us in the ass. Some are working overtime to make these Egyptian protests about fundamentalists Islam when they clearly aren’t. Most of the reasoned analysis from actual Egyptians concludes that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood may have some small role to play in a unity or coalition government but there simply isn’t huge, broad-based support in Egypt for a total takeover. Some good examples of fear-mongering today can be found here, here and here.

UPDATE II: For an informed take (ie. not Glenn Beck, not Frank Gaffney, not Daniel Pipes, not Alan Dershowitz) regarding why the situation in Egypt does not parallel the situation during the Iranian Revolution see Prof. Juan Cole’s post here. It’s a must-read.

UPDATE III: I am guessing that after Israel’s impolitic remarks the other day where it made it known that it had chastised (!) the U.S. and Europe for not standing by their/our ally Mubarak, Netanyahu has offered a more nuanced line– he’s pro-democracy but the U.S. and Europe must DEMAND that any forthcoming Egyptian government abide by the peace treaty with Israel. Uh, here’s the problem- the US and Europe are not in a position to DEMAND anything. Sure, we can float the notion that we will cut off economic and military aid, but Bibi might do well to not insert Israel into this right now. I don’t really think the people on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria are all that concerned with Israel’s needs and wants at the moment. Not that Israel’s needs aren’t important- they are. But I think the best way to preserve peace between Israel and Egypt is to a) bring about a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which would usher in normalization with the Arab League, b) not be seen as trying to dictate what Egypt’s democracy will look like and c) show unqualified support for the Egyptian people.

UPDATE IV:Pro-Mubarak demonstrators have had violent clashes with protesters in Tahrir Square. Twitter messages from protesters in Tahrir square say that Mubarak has sent plain-clothes security to instigate violence. The military is trying to restore order but they are NOT firing at protesters. You can follow the events live on Al Jazeera English online but I think the website is overwhelmed with traffic because I can’t always access it.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2011 9:28 am

    I agree with Kristof! Obama is already being seen by many as a not so hidden hand trying to manipulate events in our (and Israel’s) favor. And right after Mubarak’s speech yesterday, after he got Obama’s blessing to stick around until Sept, pro-Mubarak goons entered the streets going after protesters. It’s happening now, as well. Pro-Mubarak men on horses and camels attacking protesters. That’s one of Mubarak’s tricks – trust me to create stability out of mayhem. Except he’s likely behind the mayhem. I would bet he’s figuring he’ll start implementing a few reforms, wait until Obama has moved on to his next problem (or re-election campaign), and engage in more of his tricks and thuggery. Obama has not exactly demonstrated an iron will.

    If anyone thinks Mubarak can be trusted after 30 yrs as a harsh US-supported dictator to implement meaningful reforms, creating democracy, and then ride off into the sunset in Sept., …

    • February 2, 2011 4:04 pm

      Yes, it’s widely believed that Mubarak is unleashing mayhem and violence on the streets and he’s blaming the Muslim Brotherhood despite the fact that its his own security forces (NOT the military) doing it-it’s far too organized and some are saying there were people with weapons including guns- people don’t own guns in Egypt, only the security services do.

      Staying in power until September would be a disaster and give Mubarak time to change the Constitution or play games and clamp down on opposition groups. He has to leave now, although it’s up to the military to “encourage” him to go.

  2. February 2, 2011 9:30 am

    I’m with Kristof.

  3. Carolyn-Rodham permalink
    February 2, 2011 11:14 am

    Bibi is a schoolyard bully. Not the big, hulking behemoth type, but the — you should pardon the analogy — little Hitler type who has a few behemoths around him so he thinks he can push around and intimidate anyone. It’s fun to watch the look of doubt creeping across the bully’s face when he looks around and his big side-kicks are sliding away. He looks smaller, weaker, more vulnerable all of a sudden.

    • February 2, 2011 11:59 am

      It’s sort of amusing watching Israel’s most reflexive enablers make fools of themselves supporting Mubarak, as though the U.S. can somehow overrule the will of tens of millions of Egyptians. Never mind that continuing to support the oppressive dictator could actually harm our (and Israel’s) long-term national security interests. It’s also rather condescending to think that the US and Israel should be able to anoint only certain people with the gift of democracy. Clearly, Arabs are not worthy of such freedoms because they might be free to choose things we don’t like. That sounds a lot like the attitude of British colonialists in Africa way back when- ie. we need to rule over them because they are too much of savages to rule over themselves.

      Here’s Richard Cohen, who makes no secret of the fact that he thinks America’s number one foreign policy concern right now should be Israel:

      Other notables making the same argument are Dershowitz, Marc Ginsberg, Pipes, Abraham Wagner etc. Their grasp of the consequences of our history of meddling in the Middle East seems either non-existent or they are just purposefully sugar-coating it.

      Of course, these are the same folks that have opposed any meaningful efforts at a just solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which very well could have brought about full normalization with the Arab League. While the protests certainly aren’t about the Arab Israeli conflict, I really do think that had the issue been resolved Israel would be in a much, much, much stronger position right now.

      Here’s another article about how the protests in Egypt are not like those in Tehran in 1979:

      One of the ironies is that 30 years of repressing all political opposition in Egypt means that any transition will be all the more messy. There simply aren’t experienced opposition leaders waiting in the wings because Mubarak wouldn’t allow it. We should probably keep that in mind as we scratch our heads and wonder aloud “yes, but who will they choose to lead them in their quest for democracy?!?” Again, it’s another consequence of supporting repressive dictatorships- the power vacuum that we are so afraid of right now was ensured by decades of US support for Mubarak.

  4. PYW permalink
    February 2, 2011 11:49 am

    I’m glad to see Hillary’s playing a huge role in this and that she’s getting recognition for doing so.

  5. February 2, 2011 12:00 pm

    Reports are of Mubarak’s goons carrying knives, sticks, and even machetes. Some are on horseback and camels. They even physically attacked Anderson Cooper. And so far the Army is NOT stopping them.

    We are Mubarak’s enabler, having supplied on average 2bil tax dollars a year to him for decades. Last night, Obama gave his little speech, seemed pleased to say that Mubarak would stay until Sept., and stated Mubarak must begin real reform “now”. What did he expect from a brutally repressive dictator? Or even worse, did he expect this? I don’t know. I would like to know what Obama is doing about this today. It’s clear to the world that the US is not an innocent bystander in this.

  6. Thain permalink
    February 2, 2011 12:53 pm

    Hillary is much better at articulating the US position on this than Obama is in my opinion despite the fact that some see Obama as a great communicator. I don’t really think he is. He sounds hesitant and wishy washy and always seems to straddle the fence- not just this but on everything.

    • Pilgrim permalink
      February 2, 2011 12:58 pm


      He has no core of conviction, no spine, something Ramsgate at TM said early and often.

      As to “great communicator,” …. pah

  7. Pilgrim permalink
    February 2, 2011 12:56 pm

    I keep thinking of something Joyce Arnold said. Obama like a racer set at starting position, and looking around and waiting for applause.

    • Rachel permalink
      February 2, 2011 1:42 pm

      Even when he says the right things his message is hampered by his body language. When he is at the podium he really needs to stop the annoying habit of tilting his head up and pausing. It just pushes his nose high in the air like he is looming down at everyone.

      • February 2, 2011 2:11 pm

        Body posture can be revealing of a person’s true thoughts and intentions…

      • Carolyn-Rodham permalink
        February 2, 2011 2:55 pm

        That’s really true – the first time he did it that I can recall was during the New Hampshire debate in 2008. Made him look incredibly arrogant, but of course saying so just brought accusations that what I was REALLY saying ( in code) was that he was being “uppity.”

        • rachel permalink
          February 2, 2011 3:14 pm

          Yeah I know a bunch of people who got that. It’s 2011 and I am so tired of everything someone says trying to broken down into some kind of racial overtone.

          • Pilgrim permalink
            February 2, 2011 3:38 pm

            yes, it’s the old race card

  8. February 2, 2011 5:45 pm

    Steve Clemons has a good run-down of possible scenarios for Egypt and how it could impact the US. He is saying that it is unlikely Egypt would go the way of Iran and unlikely it would rip up a peace treaty with Israel but it could end up being more independent foreign-policy-wise, somewhat like Turkey. That might not be a bad thing because unqualified Egyptian support for the status quo in Israel-Gaza-the West Bank hasn’t exactly brought us any big break-throughs. The Lobby and those in love with maintaining the status quo and Israeli expansion at the expense of peace, won’t be so happy with a more independent Egypt.

  9. Thain permalink
    February 2, 2011 6:25 pm

    Tony Blair really is an a**hole:

    Why is this guy the head of the Middle East Quartet? Oh yeah, that’s right, he has friends in high places. Oh yeah, he also helps maintain the status quo in Israel while pretending to do something constructive.

    All this talk about how helpful Mubarak has been in Mideast peace- did I miss something? Did Mubarak help create a Palestinian state and no one told me? No, but what he did do was placated the US and Israel, so that’s how we define being really, really helpful in the region.

    Blair’s been a real bummer since he found religion, became Bush’s pool boy and lied about the reasons for the Iraq War.

    These people never friggin’ retire, they just keep being recycled to go screw up other things while making buckets of money and so long as everything is ok for THEM, the little people should just shut up be thankful they have a nice little dictatorship that’s helped out the US and Israel.

  10. Thain permalink
    February 2, 2011 6:35 pm

    And in the region’s only democracy, Israel:

  11. February 16, 2013 3:05 pm

    I love her Charisma.

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