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Obama’s Bad Brotherhood Bet

For the last few months, conservative critics of the Obama administration’s foreign policy have obsessed about its failure in Libya. The fiasco in Benghazi that took the lives of four Americans including our ambassador deserved more media scrutiny and Republicans are right to continue to demand answers about it. But the unfolding disaster next door in Egypt is a far greater indication of the way the president has blundered abroad than even that tragic episode. Obama’s decision to force the Egyptian military to accept a Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo and Washington’s subsequent embrace of Mohamed Morsi’s regime has materially aided the descent of the most populous Arab country into the grip of an Islamist party. The Brotherhood regime is determined to extinguish any hope of liberalization in Egypt and its drive to seize total power there is a direct threat to regional stability and Middle East peace.

Rather than using the leverage that the more than $1 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt gives it, the administration has loyally stuck to Morsi despite his seizing of powers that are comparable to those of deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak and his efforts to violently repress the widespread dissatisfaction with his government. There is no sign that anyone in the State Department or the White House realizes that the U.S. bet on the Brotherhood is a disaster, but yesterday’s column by one of the leading peddlers of conventional wisdom on foreign policy ought to concern Morsi. If the Islamists have lost Thomas Friedman, then there is at least a little hope that their campaign to swindle American liberals into backing them is going to eventually crash.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Friedman did something we haven’t seen much of in that newspaper: tell the truth about the Brotherhood’s intentions and its ideological drive to transform Egypt. While the paper’s news pages and fellow columnists like Nicholas Kristof have bought into the baloney the Brotherhood has served up to foreign journalists about their moderation and desire for democracy and progress, Friedman made it clear that their tyrannical impulse is no aberration. Even more important, he made it clear that the Obama administration’s apparent belief that they can reinvent the modus vivendi that formally existed between the U.S. and Mubarak with Morsi is a terrible mistake.

As Friedman notes, the Brotherhood has prioritized the cleansing of non-Islamist aspects of Egyptian culture over its supposed hope to reboot the economy. The banning of the Belly Dancing Channel on Egyptian TV made for a comic lede for Friedman’s column, but it is no joke, as it illustrates Morsi’s desire to turn a multi-faceted society into another Iran.

Yet as right as Friedman is about the current situation, his advice about the Brotherhood having to change or fail misses the point about a movement that has no intention of ever allowing power to slip from its hands. Friedman is right that the Brotherhood’s version of political Islam will sink Egypt into poverty. The problem is that they are no more willing or capable of becoming more democratic or open-minded about non-Islamist culture than they are of ever accepting peace with Israel.

Friedman praises what he claims is an Obama administration decision to convey their concerns about the direction of Egypt privately rather than publicly. He also supports an apparent decision to invite Morsi to Washington for a visit where he can try to charm the U.S. into keeping the flow of American taxpayer dollars into his government’s coffers.

But the more time the U.S. takes in conveying the message that it will not back an Egyptian government intent on an Islamist kulturkampf, the less chance there will be that it can influence events in Cairo. We already know what a bad bet Obama has made in backing Morsi and the Brotherhood. It may already be too late to reverse the damage that was done by the president’s feckless embrace of the Islamists. If, as Friedman acknowledges, the direction the Brotherhood is taking Egypt, and by extension the region, is one that can lead to chaos, tyranny and violence, an American decision to cut Morsi off can’t come too soon. 



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