President Obama on the phone with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt on Friday. Vice President Joe Biden listens at left.
A few months after Barack Obama took office, CIA analysts monitoring the Middle East received an unusual request from the National Security Council. The president had appreciated the in-depth country profiles the intelligence community had prepared for him to read. But there was something missing. The white papers all assessed what various groups within each country didn't like about the United States - but there was very little about what they admired. So that's what Obama wanted to know: What do Yemenis, Qataris and Egyptians like about the U.S.?
The answer, in the case of Egypt, was the American education system. The competition for visas to study inside the U.S., particularly among those with a bent toward the hard sciences, was fierce. And it was considered a point of pride for a family member to brag about his brother studying overseas. The National Security Council and the State Department turned this nugget of insight into policy: Obama would expand the number of educational visas available to qualified Egyptian students. The State Department would increase its direct outreach to Egyptians; it would hold entrepreneurship and science summits, and would convene gatherings of Egyptians to meet with visiting American scientists.
As the White House's focus turned to Egypt late last week, the aspirations of young Egyptians were very much on the president's mind.
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After Tunisia, the intelligence community, the diplomatic community and the White House all anticipated that protests would spread. The sheer number of calls the State Department was fielding from other governments was a clue: lots of mid-level diplomats in the Mideast wanted to know what their counterparts at State were hearing and seeing.