Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 2, 2013

Is Obama Losing Egypt Again?

Once again the future of Egypt hangs in the balance. The ultimatum delivered yesterday to the Muslim Brotherhood government by the Egyptian military puts President Mohamed Morsi on notice that it will not tolerate repression of the protesters who have turned out in unprecedented numbers this week to demonstrate against the Islamist movement’s push to seize total power. Should Morsi agree to early elections, that might avert a confrontation. But given his determination to press on with his Islamist project and with a massive following of his own that could be unleashed on the streets, it’s not clear whether the president will try to call the army’s bluff or back down. No foreign power, even one with the leverage that the billions in annual aid to Egypt gives the United States, can solely determine the outcome of this standoff. But anything President Obama does or says at this crucial moment can have a disproportionate impact on what will happen. Thus, the news that President Obama is trying to play both ends against the middle in Egypt is a discouraging sign that once again the administration doesn’t understand the stakes involved in this struggle and where U.S. interests lie.

As CNN reports, the United States is sending out mixed messages to the competing factions. On the one hand, reportedly the president told Morsi that he should agree to new elections, a sign that finally the administration is stepping away from its embrace of the Brotherhood government. On the other hand, it has apparently also warned the military that the U.S. will not tolerate a move to unseat Morsi or to impose its own “road map” to a new government, as the army has warned it will do should the Egyptian president allow the 48-hour ultimatum to expire without agreeing to respect the demands of the protesters.

While it is clear the U.S. is in a difficult position, Obama’s attempt to thread the needle in Cairo may well wind up leaving America with the worst of both worlds. As it did in 2011 when its equivocal response to the Arab Spring protests helped dump Mubarak while at the same time alienating the Egyptian people, the administration has not made clear its priorities. After a year in which the actions of both Washington and Ambassador Anne Patterson have left the impression that President Obama is firmly committed to supporting Morsi, the threat of an aid cutoff if the military acts to curb the Brotherhood may have far more resonance that its sotto voce whispers about new elections. The result is that by refusing to fully support the military’s efforts to prevent Morsi from consolidating power, the United States may be missing another opportunity to prevent Egypt from slipping irrevocably into Islamist tyranny.

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Once again the future of Egypt hangs in the balance. The ultimatum delivered yesterday to the Muslim Brotherhood government by the Egyptian military puts President Mohamed Morsi on notice that it will not tolerate repression of the protesters who have turned out in unprecedented numbers this week to demonstrate against the Islamist movement’s push to seize total power. Should Morsi agree to early elections, that might avert a confrontation. But given his determination to press on with his Islamist project and with a massive following of his own that could be unleashed on the streets, it’s not clear whether the president will try to call the army’s bluff or back down. No foreign power, even one with the leverage that the billions in annual aid to Egypt gives the United States, can solely determine the outcome of this standoff. But anything President Obama does or says at this crucial moment can have a disproportionate impact on what will happen. Thus, the news that President Obama is trying to play both ends against the middle in Egypt is a discouraging sign that once again the administration doesn’t understand the stakes involved in this struggle and where U.S. interests lie.

As CNN reports, the United States is sending out mixed messages to the competing factions. On the one hand, reportedly the president told Morsi that he should agree to new elections, a sign that finally the administration is stepping away from its embrace of the Brotherhood government. On the other hand, it has apparently also warned the military that the U.S. will not tolerate a move to unseat Morsi or to impose its own “road map” to a new government, as the army has warned it will do should the Egyptian president allow the 48-hour ultimatum to expire without agreeing to respect the demands of the protesters.

While it is clear the U.S. is in a difficult position, Obama’s attempt to thread the needle in Cairo may well wind up leaving America with the worst of both worlds. As it did in 2011 when its equivocal response to the Arab Spring protests helped dump Mubarak while at the same time alienating the Egyptian people, the administration has not made clear its priorities. After a year in which the actions of both Washington and Ambassador Anne Patterson have left the impression that President Obama is firmly committed to supporting Morsi, the threat of an aid cutoff if the military acts to curb the Brotherhood may have far more resonance that its sotto voce whispers about new elections. The result is that by refusing to fully support the military’s efforts to prevent Morsi from consolidating power, the United States may be missing another opportunity to prevent Egypt from slipping irrevocably into Islamist tyranny.

From the start of the Arab Spring protests, President Obama has sought to portray himself as a supporter of those who wanted to overthrow authoritarian dictatorships in the Muslim world. This is a laudable impulse, but the practical effect of this policy has been to lend the legitimacy of U.S. backing to Islamist movements like the Brotherhood who used their superior organization to win the elections that followed Mubarak’s fall. Elections are important. But when voting takes place in the absence of a consensus in favor of democratic principles, it is often a poor barometer of genuine progress toward freedom. Like the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections, the Brotherhood’s triumph at the ballot box wasn’t an indication that Egypt was on its way to democracy. As Morsi has proven over the course of the last year, it was merely a way station toward the Brotherhood’s plans to remake the country in its own image, something that horrified many moderate Muslims as well as secular and Christian Egyptians.

It should also have shocked an Obama administration that used its considerable influence over the Egyptian military to force them to stand aside and let Morsi and the Brotherhood take over the government last year. But now that the people have risen in numbers that dwarf the considerable protests that helped oust Mubarak, it is time for the United States to make it clear that what it wants is an end to the brief and unhappy experiment of Brotherhood rule.

President Obama has shown himself to be reluctant to throw America’s weight around when it comes to defending U.S. interests as opposed to those causes that can be portrayed as a gesture toward universal principles. Thus, he seems averse to anything that can be seen as repressing the will of the Egyptian people. But after a year of the Brotherhood’s efforts to undermine any checks and balances on its power, the demonstrators realize something that perhaps has eluded the president and his inner circle: this is probably Egypt’s last chance to oust Morsi before he completes the process of consolidating his power.

If the U.S. forces the Egyptian military to back down as it did last year, then it is highly unlikely that Morsi and the Brotherhood will ever be successfully challenged. Without the military behind them, the anti-Morsi protests could be repressed. More elections may follow, but if the Brotherhood is allowed to complete its conquest of the bureaucracy, the media and the military, then it is unlikely that anyone will ever be able to unseat them.

Much as he would like to avoid picking sides, the time is fast approaching when Obama must choose between his strange willingness to make common cause with the Brotherhood and its Turkish ally, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the need to help those who wish to prevent Egypt from sinking into an Islamist nightmare. In this case, ambivalence and nuance is not, as the administration seems to think, the same thing as effective strategy or a defense of U.S. interests. As Egypt heads toward the precipice, President Obama must make it clear that America will back those who seek to prevent a Brotherhood dictatorship. If he doesn’t, both history and the Egyptian people may never forgive him.

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Turkey Betrays NATO Again

Two years ago, I blogged here about how Turkey had held secret air force war games with China, much to the surprise of both the Pentagon and NATO. The cooperation with China was especially unnerving considering the access to NATO secrets and U.S. technology that Turkey had and which it wanted. Now it seems Turkey is at it again. According to Hürriyet Daily News:

Turkey’s western allies look puzzled by a looming decision by Ankara to select Chinese long-range anti-missile and air defense systems which they think cannot be integrated into the NATO-sponsored early warning architecture currently deployed on Turkish soil. “That would certainly leave many of us speechless,” said one senior diplomat from a NATO country. “Turkey has every right to choose its own air defense system but we do not quite understand the logic of opting for a Chinese system with no interoperability with the existing [NATO] assets.” A NATO ally defense attaché in Ankara said that deploying a Chinese air defense system to protect Turkish airspace could have political repercussions. “Questioning Turkey’s geopolitical trajectory would then be legitimate,” he said.

Indeed. Then, again, Turkey’s leadership has been changing Turkey’s geopolitical trajectory for quite some time.

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Two years ago, I blogged here about how Turkey had held secret air force war games with China, much to the surprise of both the Pentagon and NATO. The cooperation with China was especially unnerving considering the access to NATO secrets and U.S. technology that Turkey had and which it wanted. Now it seems Turkey is at it again. According to Hürriyet Daily News:

Turkey’s western allies look puzzled by a looming decision by Ankara to select Chinese long-range anti-missile and air defense systems which they think cannot be integrated into the NATO-sponsored early warning architecture currently deployed on Turkish soil. “That would certainly leave many of us speechless,” said one senior diplomat from a NATO country. “Turkey has every right to choose its own air defense system but we do not quite understand the logic of opting for a Chinese system with no interoperability with the existing [NATO] assets.” A NATO ally defense attaché in Ankara said that deploying a Chinese air defense system to protect Turkish airspace could have political repercussions. “Questioning Turkey’s geopolitical trajectory would then be legitimate,” he said.

Indeed. Then, again, Turkey’s leadership has been changing Turkey’s geopolitical trajectory for quite some time.

Turkey’s decision to become a “Dialogue Partner” with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was as blatant a hint as could come. If the European Union is a club of democracies, then the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a club for one-party, strongman dictatorships like Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Iran, as an observer. Unfortunately, as the tide has turned in Turkey, it looks increasingly like Ankara belongs in the latter camp, not in the former. Let us hope that neither the Pentagon nor NATO allows Turkey to do significant damage as it reorients itself to the autocratic east. Here, Congress could have much more of a role, if it requires significant Pentagon reporting to explore the damage the Turkish leadership could do should it leak new technologies to the Chinese.

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Snowden’s Crusade Takes Delusional Turn

Edward Snowden’s public statement about his case, released by WikiLeaks, left journalists scratching their heads. As Max Fisher noted, the assumption seemed to be that Snowden didn’t write the statement, and that perhaps WikiLeaks’s own Julian Assange had written it, both because of its defiant tone and its (since corrected) clumsy English.

But more puzzling than the statement’s authorship was that Snowden let such a statement (if indeed he had a say in it) be released in his name. Quite apart from the obvious language barrier was the fact that the author of the statement seemed to be either delusional or possessing only a passing familiarity with the details of Snowden’s case. After criticizing President Obama for seeking to protect national security secrets, “Snowden” writes:

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Edward Snowden’s public statement about his case, released by WikiLeaks, left journalists scratching their heads. As Max Fisher noted, the assumption seemed to be that Snowden didn’t write the statement, and that perhaps WikiLeaks’s own Julian Assange had written it, both because of its defiant tone and its (since corrected) clumsy English.

But more puzzling than the statement’s authorship was that Snowden let such a statement (if indeed he had a say in it) be released in his name. Quite apart from the obvious language barrier was the fact that the author of the statement seemed to be either delusional or possessing only a passing familiarity with the details of Snowden’s case. After criticizing President Obama for seeking to protect national security secrets, “Snowden” writes:

This kind of deception from a world leader is not justice, and neither is the extralegal penalty of exile. These are the old, bad tools of political aggression. Their purpose is to frighten, not me, but those who would come after me.

For decades the United States of America has been one of the strongest defenders of the human right to seek asylum. Sadly, this right, laid out and voted for by the U.S. in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is now being rejected by the current government of my country. The Obama administration has now adopted the strategy of using citizenship as a weapon. Although I am convicted of nothing, it has unilaterally revoked my passport, leaving me a stateless person. Without any judicial order, the administration now seeks to stop me exercising a basic right. A right that belongs to everybody. The right to seek asylum.

In point of fact, this doesn’t seem to be describing Snowden’s ordeal. Though it’s unlikely Snowden came up with the phrase “extralegal penalty of exile,” it not only reads like it was put through a computer-generated translation tool but is also not relevant to Snowden. He wasn’t exiled; the United States has very publicly been asking for him back. It was his choice to run away rather than accept the legal consequences of his actions.

Additionally, revoking Snowden’s passport does not leave him a “stateless person.” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that “Such a revocation does not affect citizenship status.” He is not a man without a country but a man whose country would very much like to arrange a reunion with him. Snowden may not like the fact that he would be brought up on felony charges if he returns. But that is different from saying he is unwanted here in the States when the truth is precisely the opposite.

He is also not a stateless person for another reason: his current host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, suggested that Snowden is welcome to stay in Russia if he would just keep his mouth shut and stop making trouble. Snowden has responded by apparently rejecting those terms, and searching for asylum in a different country that won’t require him to stop taunting and threatening his country of origin whose security he is working to undermine.

If Snowden does manage to find himself without asylum, he will have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, since the Obama administration is about ready to run up the white flag on his pursuit. As I wrote last week, Secretary of State John Kerry started out taking a tough line with Russia before he was promptly and publicly rebuked by his Russian counterpart, after which Kerry backed off. Kerry has now followed that same path with China:

The White House last week described the development as a “serious setback” to American-Chinese relations, while Mr. Kerry himself warned that it would have “consequences” for ties with Beijing.

But after a meeting with his Chinese counterpart at a conference hosted by Southeast Asian nations here, Mr. Kerry struck a conciliatory note, casting the Snowden affair as one issue among many.

And here is how he’s spinning it:

“Life in international relationships is often complicated by the fact that you have many things you have to work on simultaneously, and so we will continue to do that even as we are obviously concerned about what happened with Mr. Snowden,” he said.

The comments appear to reflect a new phase in the Obama administration’s handling of the Snowden affair. Instead of casting its request for the detention of Mr. Snowden as urgent business, administration officials now appear to be trying to play down the episode, perhaps recognizing that the United States’ ability to force a resolution is limited.

Life may be complicated and all that, but this case really isn’t. The Obama administration cannot force Snowden’s extradition; they can ask. They have done so, and their request has been denied by both China and Russia. Kerry’s statement suggests that now that Snowden is out of China’s reach, there’s no need to further ruffle feathers because China’s cooperation on other issues is needed, and he’s not through having his requests summarily rejected by them.

The Times article also notes that Kerry was asked how he can convincingly lead a rebalancing toward Asia when he spends so much time traipsing around the Middle East. “I’m here,” Kerry responded. Yet as the Snowden case and Kerry’s recent trip to the Middle East demonstrate, it doesn’t seem to matter where Kerry goes, since the administration’s foreign policies are still going nowhere.

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Time for U.S. Jews to Take Action on Turkey

Two recent comments by Turks encapsulate everything that’s wrong with Washington’s Turkey policy. One is Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay’s astounding accusation yesterday that the “Jewish diaspora” is behind last month’s massive anti-government protests. The other is a protester’s tweet quoted by Istanbul-based journalist Claire Berlinski: “Let me take this opportunity to thank Erdoğan’s international cheerleaders for the monster they’ve co-created.”

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has many international cheerleaders, but the biggest has long been President Barack Obama, who famously declared him one of the five world leaders he trusted most. Obama repeatedly touted Erdogan as a positive force in the Middle East and an exemplar of how to combine Islam and democracy.

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Two recent comments by Turks encapsulate everything that’s wrong with Washington’s Turkey policy. One is Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay’s astounding accusation yesterday that the “Jewish diaspora” is behind last month’s massive anti-government protests. The other is a protester’s tweet quoted by Istanbul-based journalist Claire Berlinski: “Let me take this opportunity to thank Erdoğan’s international cheerleaders for the monster they’ve co-created.”

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has many international cheerleaders, but the biggest has long been President Barack Obama, who famously declared him one of the five world leaders he trusted most. Obama repeatedly touted Erdogan as a positive force in the Middle East and an exemplar of how to combine Islam and democracy.

This was always fatuous: Anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists are neither a positive force in the Middle East nor an exemplar of democracy, and Erdogan’s government routinely spouts anti-Israel and anti-Semitic bile. But as Atalay’s comment shows, the chickens are now coming home to roost: Lest anyone has forgotten, the largest Jewish Diaspora by far is in America. In other words, Ankara’s newest conspiracy theory is primarily aimed at U.S. citizens.

This is a well-known historical pattern: Anti-Jewish animus always expands to new targets if left unchecked. Thus by giving the Erdogan government’s venom a pass and praising the premier lavishly, U.S. policymakers simply encouraged the poison to spread. Now, Erdogan is biting the very hands that fed him, turning not just on U.S. citizens–and specifically some of Obama’s strongest supporters–but on the international media (which also numbered among his cheerleaders until recently) and various unspecified foreign governments that Ankara sees as part of the conspiracy.

Moreover, by encouraging these excesses, Washington alienated the many ordinary Turks who oppose their premier’s less lovable traits, and especially his growing authoritarianism: Not only does Erdogan’s government lead the world in jailing journalists; it just suppressed peaceful protests so brutally that more than 7,000 people were wounded, many seriously, along with four killed.

As the abovementioned tweet shows, most Turks believe this violence was enabled by Erdogan’s “international cheerleaders,” who led him to believe that anything he did would get a free pass. And as Berlinski noted, his Turkish victims won’t soon forgive America for this–meaning this policy has done incalculable damage to America’s long-term interests.

But while the protests forced many journalists and governments to finally recognize the truth about Erdogan, there’s been one glaring exception: America. As Berlinski noted elsewhere, other embassies in Turkey tweeted regularly about the protests, but the U.S. mission stuck to fatuous irrelevancies like “#SecKerry‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬ on #LGBT‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬ Pride Month: No matter where you are, and no matter who you love, we stand with you.” Worse, at the height of the crackdown, U.S. Ambassador Frank Ricciardone even lavished praise on Erdogan’s government, declaring, “There is no difference between us and the government of Turkey” regarding “the principles that we share of freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly” (if that were true, American citizens should worry).

The message was clear: As far as the leader of the free world is concerned, Erdogan still has a free pass: His government is free to continue using massive violence against his own citizens, and free to spout anti-Semitic conspiracy theories against American citizens.

This should be a wake-up call for American Jews: They haven’t been trying to foment protests in Turkey, but it’s high time for them to start doing so in America. By pressuring the president they helped elect to finally stop encouraging Erdogan’s excesses, they would serve the long-term interests of America, Turkey and Jews everywhere. It’s hard to think of a bigger win-win than that.

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