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Politics

White House Out of Touch on Egypt

U.S. influence and intelligence in the region are proving to be rather limited.

In one short comment this week, CIA Director Leon Panetta became the poster boy for the U.S.’ ineffective handling of the mess in Egypt.

Appearing Thursday before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Panetta claimed there was a “strong likelihood” that Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s beleaguered president, would step down by the end of the day.

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The news was flashed around the world, giving credence to some sketchy media reports that the end was near. Even President Obama, who up to that point had been cautious in his remarks during two-plus weeks of unrest, jumped in with both feet.

“What is absolutely clear is that we are watching history unfold,” the president said. “It’s a moment of transformation that’s taking place because the people of Egypt are calling for change.”

The only trouble is, Obama and his administration were a day early, and then only because the Egyptian military and others forced Mubarak’s hand and led him to leave Friday.

From the start of the uprising, it’s been clear that the U.S. has had no idea what was going on in Egypt, just as the administration was caught by surprise by the revolt in Tunisia. That casts doubt on the rest of U.S. intelligence efforts in the region. It’s one thing not to be able to get a handle on the location of Osama bin Laden, one man in a vast territory. It’s another to completely misread and misinterpret what is happening in a country that is a vital U.S. ally in the Middle East.

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The CIA rushed to explain that Panetta was referring to media reports, not relying on the vast intelligence network of spies that he oversees. Funny, Panetta didn’t say anything about news reports being his source. His unsourced words carried the weight of official intelligence, given that the top intelligence officer uttered them at a congressional hearing.

If nothing else, Panetta’s poorly chosen words gave validity to speculation, transforming rumor into the realm of fact. Yes -- only for a day. But misguided is misguided.

Panetta also gave ammunition to those in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world who think America’s standing in the world is eroding. The premature reports allowed Mubarak to look like he was standing up to Obama when he announced he would continue to hold some power until elections in September.

As these words are written, many questions remain about Egypt. Will the next regime lead Egyptians to the promised land of democracy and economic stability? Or will military leaders make the protesters wish they had been more careful about what they asked for? Will the new leadership make nice with the U.S. -- our $1.3 billion in military aid should help -- or will a new Egypt write us off?

The truth is, nobody knows at this early stage. Anyone who claims to know is bluffing, guessing or perhaps even fabricating.

There is an important lesson in all of this. The events of Thursday and Friday showed, once and for all, that all the power and money and spies that the United States brings to the table can’t change the mind of one stubborn man.

Only the Egyptians could do that.

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