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Morsi’s Egypt and the Lessons of History

As the Cold War began taking shape early in the Truman administration, famed containment advisor George Kennan argued for a middle way between the strident anti-Communism forming on the right and the strategy of appeasement advocated for by the American left. Kennan believed power and psychology, not ideology, were what motivated Soviet behavior, and this required patience from the U.S. “Since world hegemony was impossible in Kennan’s interpretation of history, so, too, was Communist hegemony after World War II,” explains Elizabeth Edwards Spalding.

Kennan had made two very significant mistakes here–mistakes that proved less costly thanks to Harry Truman’s better judgment. First, as we now know, ideology indeed played a major role in Stalin’s policymaking decisions. Second, and more seriously from a policy standpoint, allowing Communism to expand until it reached its own limits and discredited itself would have meant consigning millions of people worldwide to suffer under the experiment. We didn’t have to test Stalinism further to know whether it had to be opposed.

Although there are obviously major differences between the centralized Communist movement radiating out from an empire that covered one-sixth of the world’s land mass and today’s rising tide of Islamism, there are still relevant lessons in Kennan’s mistakes. Western leaders shouldn’t fool themselves about the political ideology of Islamism, and they shouldn’t preach patience to those living under tyranny. And the case of Egypt would be a good place to start learning and applying those lessons.

There have been calls from both right and left to simply let tyrannical Islamist governments fail on their own, and thus naturally ebb away from the scene. The problem with this advice is that, as Iran and Hamas have shown, it’s actually quite difficult for those living under the thumb of Islamist tyranny to get rid of such governments once they have consolidated power whether they successfully govern their country or not. The case of Hamas is instructive since they are an offshoot of the same movement that now governs their Egyptian neighbors, and not only did Hamas end elections in Gaza after taking power but their strength has also been at the root of Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to hold elections in the West Bank. Tyranny can be contagious, even after its harmfulness is exposed.

We certainly have limited influence on such events, but there’s no reason not to use what influence we have here, especially with regard to foreign aid. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, already clear about his anti-Semitism and consolidation of power, is now jailing his critics. That’s why, as the Carnegie Endowment’s Thomas Carothers and Nathan Brown write today in the Washington Post, the U.S. policy of “respecting” Egypt’s new Islamist rulers has outlived any justification. It’s also, they note acidly, not actually respectful of Islamists:

Putting this message into practice will require much sharper, clearer public responses by the White House and State Department to violations of basic democratic and rule-of-law norms. It will mean an end to justifying the Brotherhood’s negative political steps. And the United States should indicate that the possibility of new aid is not isolated from domestic Egyptian political realities.

This tougher line should not be coupled with an embrace of the opposition. U.S. policy should be based on firm support of core democratic principles, not on playing favorites.

Recalibrating the current policy line will require careful nuance. It has to be clear that the United States is not turning against the Brotherhood but is siding more decisively with democracy. The Obama administration must also make it well known to all that it adamantly opposes any military intervention in Egypt’s politics. The United States is understandably sensitive about being accused of an anti-Islamist stance in an Arab world roiling with Islamist activism. Yet showing that Washington is serious about democratic standards with new Islamist actors in power is ultimately a greater sign of respect for them than excusing their shortcomings and lowering our expectations.

This is an argument that has been made repeatedly in the context of the left’s refusal to hold Palestinians accountable for building state institutions and renouncing terrorism, and it applies here as well. Treating the Abbas or Morsi governments as if they are incapable of upholding basic moral standards is supremely condescending, what is often referred to as the soft bigotry of low expectations.  

And even tacit approval of such behavior won’t exist in a vacuum. It will signal to aspiring dictators–whether Islamist or not–that it doesn’t matter how they seize power or wield it once in office. If the American government is too consumed by a fear of insulting the oppressors to stick up for the oppressed, the world will get more of both.



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