Enter the Diplomats

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After a week of increasingly pointed but ineffectual rhetorical forays, the U.S. waded directly into Egypt’s turmoil today, dispatching envoys to the opposing parties in an attempt to steer the unrest towards what Hillary Clinton over the weekend called an “orderly transition.” It is a risky move by Obama, putting the U.S. between millions of infuriated protesters and the intransigent dictator Hosni Mubarak in a situation that could still turn ugly. It also holds the potential of a significant diplomatic win with resonances beyond Egypt if the administration can broker a positive outcome.

First, the U.S. sent former Ambassador Frank Wisner to speak to Mubarak. Wisner and Mubarak established a “very close” relationship when Wisner was the U.S. envoy to the country under Reagan and Bush, says a senior administration official. The White House in consultation with Obama’s national security principals decided Wisner was the best person to “nudge” Mubarak towards the exit in part because he is seen as sympathetic to Mubarak and can influence the Egyptian leader.

Wisner spoke with Mubarak Tuesday, and conveyed to him Obama’s recommendation that he not seek re-election. The nudge was apparently not enough. Mubarak announced his intention not to run in September’s election late Tuesday, but indicated he would stay on until then. The announcement was met by even more angry calls from protesters and their leaders for his immediate removal.

State department spokesman P.J. Crowley announced earlier in the day Tuesday that the current U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, Margaret Scobey, had spoken with the nominal lead negotiator for the opposition, Mohammad elBaradei. It was the first known channel opened to elBaradei, who has been critical of the U.S. and has refused to speak to Mubarak. Scobey also reached out to other opposition figures and the expectation in Egypt and abroad may now be that the U.S. should play a role as interlocutor between the various factions. The senior administration official said the U.S. had not spoken with the Muslim Brotherhood, “yet.”

The next move for the U.S. is to continue to push Mubarak, and to buy time and discourage confrontation on the side of the protesters. “We’re going to continue to push and you’re going to try to find a way for [Mubarak to make] a dignified exit,” says the senior administration official, “But make sure it’s an exit.”

The danger of stepping into the middle of the tumult is that things may go wrong and the U.S. could catch some of the blame. Violence could break out between protesters and security forces (though for now the sides are largely restraining themselves). Mubarak could continue to refuse to leave before September elections, making the U.S. look even weaker than it did before stepping in diplomatically. Even if the U.S. succeeds in negotiating a peaceful transfer of power in coming days, political developments could produce another strongman, an outcome for which the U.S. might be blamed.

But Obama seems to have calculated that the upside is worth the risk. If the U.S. can be seen as an agent for the peaceful removal of Mubarak from office it will boost its credibility with disgruntled Arabs. It could give weight to U.S. calls for reform elsewhere in the region. And if a stable democracy that continued to live at peace with Israel were somehow to emerge from all of this, and the U.S. had played any kind of role in the outcome, it would be seen as a major U.S. diplomatic victory both overseas and at home. Trying to steer events from here to there, however, is a big league diplomatic challenge–and a risk.