After meeting with embattled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak last week at the behest of President Barack Obama, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner suggested Mubarak should stay in power as Cairo transitions to a new government. "President Mubarak's role remains utterly critical in the days ahead while we sort our way toward a future," Wisner said.
The Obama administration, which has moved slowly but steadily toward embracing regime change, quickly disavowed Wisner's remarks.
Was Wisner right? Maybe. Someone needs to keep the country together if Mubarak steps down. And right now, it's not clear who that someone might be. Former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei and newly-installed vice president and former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman are two of the front-runners. But it's unclear how either of them could summon the political and military strength necessary to prevent a complete collapse in Egypt, and it's hard to see how the U.S. can embrace that kind of political uncertainty. It's particularly hard, when you stop to consider the political and financial capital we've invested in Egypt over the years.
Among the many bad options out there, Egypt's military is the best way forward. While not democratic, it is the only institution that can preserve order during a transition to democracy. It can prevent power plays by both autocrats and theocrats, it can safeguard against abuses of power, and it coordinate with a caretaker government.
Here's the rub: the military has given no outward indication that it seeks that role. While it has not sided with the regime or fired on the protesters, it has done nothing to hasten the fall of Mubarak.
As long as Egypt remains in this state of flux, Wisner may be right. But this does not mean that President Obama should have employed him. Yes, Wisner was ambassador to Egypt from 1986 to 1991. But he also works for Patton Boggs, a law firm and lobbying shop that boasts the Egyptian government as a client. Mubarak's demise might not be good for business.
Amidst the drama in Tahrir Square, the Obama administration has struggled to articulate a policy that would ensure a soft landing to this crisis - if such a thing is possible. Bringing Wisner aboard, regardless of whether his advice was worthy, created the appearance of mixed messages and brought unnecessary drama into an already tense situation.