Foreign and Defense Policy

No Way to Do Crisis Management

Three weeks ago, President Obama met for more than an hour on a Saturday with “his national security team” to discuss the situation in Egypt, just before former Ambassador Frank Wisner was dispatched to meet with President Mubarak.

There were 11 people in the room in addition to the president. That was probably four or five too many, but the bigger problem is that people who should have been there were absent, and some people who probably shouldn’t have attended were there. Here’s the White House Press Office’s “Readout of the President’s Meeting on Egypt”:

At 1:00 pm today, the President convened a meeting of his national security team at the White House. Participants included Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan, National Security Advisor to the Vice President Tony Blinken, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, Senior Director for the Central Region Dennis Ross, Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa Dan Shapiro, Chief of Staff Bill Daley, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, and Senior Advisor David Plouffe. The meeting lasted just over an hour. The President was updated on the situation in Egypt. He reiterated our focus on opposing violence and calling for restraint; supporting universal rights; and supporting concrete steps that advance political reform within Egypt.

Most striking is the paucity of people with substantive knowledge of the situation in Egypt, and even more is that there was no one from State, Defense, or the CIA. Not only did those departments have the best sources of information available to the U.S. government on the current situation, but they were the ones most responsible for implementing any policies that the president might direct. Perhaps that helps to explain how an experienced diplomat like Wisner could so quickly find himself speaking at cross-purposes with the administration. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’s attempt to distance the White House from Wisner suggests a serious lack of coordination within the U.S. government: “Former Ambassador Wisner is not an employee of the government. He was, based on his broad experience in Egypt, asked by the State Department—and I would direct you to the State Department on the specifics of anything regarding him—to travel to Cairo and have a specific conversation with President Mubarak.”

The presence of so many political and public relations advisers in the meeting was also problematic. At best that tends to produce a focus on the very short term at the expense of any forward thinking. At worst it produces a decision process that begins with the question of how best to spin the position of the moment.

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