President Obama resorted to one of his favorite rhetorical memes yesterday when he complained that both supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military government in Egypt that toppled the Islamists from power last month are criticizing him. As he likes to do on domestic issues when criticizing his opponents and pretends to be the only adult in the room, the president is trying to carve out room in the center of the Egypt controversy by condemning the government’s actions against Brotherhood demonstrators and suspending joint military exercises but not cutting off U.S. aid.
Yet unlike those domestic disputes, in which most of the mainstream media buys into Obama’s conceit, it isn’t working this time. Indeed, not only is the president viewed with contempt and anger by both sides in what is rapidly assuming the look of a civil war inside Egypt, but he’s also getting backtalk from liberal outlets that normally echo administration talking points. Hence, the editorial page of the New York Times is pressuring the president to cut off aid and even publishing a screed from a Brotherhood supporter this morning. Even stronger was a piece in Politico that said bluntly that he had “chosen America’s interests over its values — and the pragmatists in his administration over the human-rights idealists.”
But the problem with U.S. policy toward Egypt isn’t that he has made such a choice. It’s that he’s never made a choice at all. In fact, by raising the heat on the military government and abusing it publicly at a time when it is locked in a death struggle with a totalitarian movement bent on power, he’s not defending U.S. interests or the country’s values.
The pictures coming out of Cairo this week are shocking. With hundreds dead and more violence today as the Brotherhood took to the streets again for a “Day of Rage,” it’s difficult for a U.S. administration that spent a year embracing the Islamist party after it took power to remain silent about the casualties. Yet by adopting a tone of outrage about the attack on the Brotherhood camps in Egypt’s capital, he is squandering what little is left of America’s leverage over the situation.
It is true that the president doesn’t have any really good options. It would have been better had there been a genuine third force in Egyptian politics that would have promoted a liberal democratic alternative to the Islamists of the Brotherhood. Such a faction never had much of a chance to compete with the Brotherhood in elections, and it should be noted that unlike George W. Bush who actively sought to promote a democratic alternative in Egypt, Obama gave short shrift to that cause. But in the absence of genuine democrats in the fray, we are left with only two choices: the military or the Brotherhood.
As even the New York Times reports today, most Egyptians have little trouble picking sides in such a tangle: they believe the military was right to act to clear the capital of armed encampments of supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi. They understand that the Brotherhood is not without blame for this confrontation or the violence and even point out, as we did on Wednesday, that Islamists are retaliating for the coup by burning churches.
While the attacks on the president for his failure to cut off aid from both liberal outlets and Republicans like Senators John McCain and Rand Paul (Egypt appears to be the one issue these two antagonists agree on at the moment) are rooted in a belief that he is trashing American values by not distancing Washington further from the Egyptian military, this is based on a profound misunderstanding of how we should define both U.S. interests and moral values in this case.
If there was any period during which American values were being put on hold in Egypt it was the year during which the president and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared to endorse Morsi and his Brotherhood government. This was interpreted by many Egyptians, who rightly feared the consequences of Morsi’s drive for total power, as abandoning them to the clutches of an Islamist movement that would never peacefully relinquish power. They also knew that the administration had pressured the military to allow the Brotherhood to take power after it won elections by threatening an aid cutoff.
Once we understand that democracy isn’t an option in an Egypt divided between Brotherhood and those who understand the military is their only shield against the threat of an Islamist state, it’s clear that America’s interests lie in supporting the military and hoping they will eventually construct a new government that can avoid the excesses of the Mubarak era, rebuild the economy, and keep the peace with Israel.
But our values are also at stake in such a policy. If the U.S. went on backing Morsi or were to use our aid as a lever by which we would seek to get the Brotherhood back in power, we would be trashing any hope for any sort of freedom in Egypt. As Michael Rubin wrote earlier today, democracy, if it is ever to triumph in Egypt, can only be established once the Brotherhood is conclusively defeated. As much as Americans may be shocked by the violence in Cairo, our interests and our values will be advanced once that happens. But so long as President Obama continues in a futile attempt to play both ends against the middle in Egypt, that transition will be impeded.