Ironically, the temperature in Cairo today was a balmy 94 degrees compared to Washington's oppressively steamy 97 degrees. But that did not deter 81-year-old Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from winging into DC for encouraging meetings with President Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Clinton to reinvigorate Egypt's pivotal diplomatic role in forging the outlines of an Obama doctrine for the Middle East.
The timing of Mubarak's visit is somewhat unusual. Mubarak has not visited Washington in over 5 years because of an icy relationship with the Bush administration, and the Capitol is pretty well empty what with Congress on summer break along with many of the 4th estate who would normally cover the visit.
However, President Obama is anxious to leverage his outreach to the Muslim world with strategic policy initiatives that would reinvigorate America's role in forging a durable peace. Mubarak, for both domestic and regional reasons, shares the president's goal of moving the Middle East peace process off dead center, and is as well positioned now as any Arab leader to be Washington's go-to guy in the Arab world, once again. Despite Egypt's internal travails and concern over its human rights record, particularly toward Mubarak's domestic opponents, few in Washington would argue that Egypt and its stable leadership succession are essential to American security in the Middle East.
With the Ramadan holy month beginning next week, both leaders were eager to assess their regional diplomatic options, particularly with respect to Iran's nuclear program pending President Obama's September deadline for assessing Tehran's compliance with UN Security Council resolutions to cease its nuclear program.
It was just a little over two months ago when President Obama traveled to Cairo to deliver his landmark address to the Muslim world. By all accounts, Mubarak and Obama were then able to establish the beginnings of a comfortable and warm working relationship, especially following Obama's very disappointing visit to Saudi Arabia just twenty four hours before landing in Cairo.
During Obama's brief stopover in Riyadh Saudi King Abdullah unexpectedly cold-shouldered the president's entreaties to undertake several confidence building gestures toward Israel in order to reinvigorate Israeli public support for a two state solution. As the promoter of the Arab League's peace initiative, the Obama administration was counting on the Saudis to begin walking the walk of peace, rather than merely talking a big talk about a peace plan the King has yet to risk anything for.
Obama had devoted considerable effort courting the Saudi monarch and the Saudis knew full well what president Obama was hoping to achieve, so the unexpected Saudi diplomatic brush-off was not received well at all within the administration and Egypt became the intended beneficiary -- not that Egypt was in any more of a mood to push the Saudis or other Arab states into such gestures.
Saudi hesitancy is not completely without reason even if the Saudis owed it to Obama to avoid a pre-Cairo speech diplomatic dead zone. After all, with Israel's leadership ever reluctant to fully embrace the concept of a two state solution and shut down all settlement construction activity, the Saudis are holding out for more tangible evidence of Israel's good faith, as well.
The low-key nature of Mubarak's late August visit belies a critical moment in the Middle East and Egypt's increasingly central role as a linchpin in Washington's diplomatic initiatives.
Mubarak's able intelligence chief Omar Suleiman was instrumental in forging a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, and facilitating talks between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Mubarak has maintained respectful, if not cordial, bilateral relations with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government, and has kept an open line with Jerusalem. Moreover, below the diplomatic radar, Mubarak and Presidential Envoy George Mitchell have been quietly working with Team Obama to develop an Obama Middle East peace initiative which the U.S. would like to unveil to a receptive Arab AND Israeli audience.
But conditions are not yet ripe in the region for an American-sponsored peace proposal to emerge, and remains very much a work in progress, complicated by an inopportune chill in U.S. -Israeli relations and ominous developments inside Iran.
Meanwhile, final status issues grow more complicated by the day. Israel is insisting on a completely demilitarized Palestinian state with a withdrawal of the right of return of Palestinian refugees and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state by the Palestinians. And the recently concluded Fatah policy conference triggered statements that further alienated Israeli public opinion as the Palestinian leadership boycotts talks with Israel until Washington is able to extract a complete settlement freeze from Netanyahu. Add to that the rift between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority and Israeli disenchantment with the Palestinian leadership (and vice versa), any positive development has to be seen as good news.
Moreover, Israelis are far more focused on events inside Iran and Iran's nuclear weapons program and less on the Palestinian situation in their midst, and waiting to see what the Obama administration is prepared and able to do to turn the screws tighter on Tehran to avoid a further deterioration in the region's precarious stability. This is Israel's real test of Obama's credibility in the region.
Regarding Iran, Obama and Mubarak also see eye-to-eye. Along with Israel and other Arab states, Egypt opposes Iran's inexorable march to nuclear weapons capability and its support for regional terrorist organizations. Mubarak will probably want assurances from the White House that the Obama administration has a contingency plan to deal with Iran's nuclear program should the president's self-imposed September deadline produce a diplomatic dead end.
As pleased as Washington may be with Egypt's newly invigorated regional role, Mubarak faces daunting domestic challenges that could impair Egypt's re-emergence and America's go-to Arab ally. It is an article of faith both in Cairo and in Washington that Mubarak would like to position his son, Gamal, as his successor. But there is considerable domestic opposition to such a succession plan, and it is highly uncertain whether Mubarak may be able to pull the inheritance off even though Gamal is a polished, thoughtful leader in his own right.
As Mubarak emerged from the White House this afternoon he urged Israel to implement a complete freeze on all settlement activity and avoid the temptation to seek "temporary solutions" with respect to the Palestinians. Not coincidentally, the Israelis signaled some additional flexibility on settlement construction by acknowledging that there is a de facto freeze on new construction, which President Obama positively referenced as the two leaders wrapped up their discussions.
Come September and post Ramadan Middle East diplomatic re-engagement, all eyes will be focused on President Obama's decisions regarding Iran, and whether the U.S. will unveil an Obama peace initiative.
How the White House positions itself on both crucial issues will in no small part depend on what Mubarak does to line up other Arab states in support of the President's regional aspirations. So we wish Hosni Mubarak "Mabruk" (good fortune) as he reestablishes a closer diplomatic partnership with Washington to further President Obama's Middle East diplomacy.