Commentary Magazine


Topic: Egypt

Just How Bad Has Egypt Become?

Much has been said about how the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements seek to drive Christians from the Middle East. Egyptian Copts are the last vestiges of an Egyptian civilization which predates the Islamic invasion and one of the last vestiges of what once was a far more pluralistic society now that Egypt is also almost completely Judenrein. The violence which the Muslim Brotherhood had directed toward Egypt’s Christians has been amply covered in stories about churches being burned and nuns being humiliated. But to put the situation in historic context, this story from the Egyptian Independent is worth reading:

Minya churches canceled on Sunday the second mass, holding only a brief one. Meanwhile, prayers did not take place at other churches which were attacked. Priest Selwanes Lotfy of the Virgin Mary and Priest Ibram monastery in Degla, south of Minya, said, “We did not hold prayers in the monastery on Sunday for the first time in 1,600 years.”

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Much has been said about how the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements seek to drive Christians from the Middle East. Egyptian Copts are the last vestiges of an Egyptian civilization which predates the Islamic invasion and one of the last vestiges of what once was a far more pluralistic society now that Egypt is also almost completely Judenrein. The violence which the Muslim Brotherhood had directed toward Egypt’s Christians has been amply covered in stories about churches being burned and nuns being humiliated. But to put the situation in historic context, this story from the Egyptian Independent is worth reading:

Minya churches canceled on Sunday the second mass, holding only a brief one. Meanwhile, prayers did not take place at other churches which were attacked. Priest Selwanes Lotfy of the Virgin Mary and Priest Ibram monastery in Degla, south of Minya, said, “We did not hold prayers in the monastery on Sunday for the first time in 1,600 years.”

It’s not every day you can say the situation is the worst it has been in 1,600 years. Under such circumstances, perhaps it’s time for the White House to choose a side rather than continue its dawdling. Let us hope when they choose, they recognize the Muslim Brotherhood for what it is rather than what its English speaking spokesmen tell credulous American officials and analysts.

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Discrediting the Muslim Brotherhood

Egypt is rarely just about Egypt. So a full conversation about whether to sustain American aid to the military government currently in power in Cairo has to include a widening of the scope to the broader Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood, which the army deposed in a coup and the recent crackdown, is not just another domestic political party, so its defeat is not just a domestic concern. The Brotherhood represents the recent ascendancy of pan-Islamism that threatens to destabilize any non-Islamist government in the region.

A perfect example of that comes today from Reuters, which reports that Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood, is foundering now that its ally next door is out of power. Hamas’s relationship with its Iranian patron was strained by the civil war in Syria, which Iran and its proxies joined on the side of Bashar al-Assad, putting them at ideological odds with Hamas. The Gaza-based terrorist group therefore had arguably the most to lose with the Brotherhood’s exit from power in Egypt.

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Egypt is rarely just about Egypt. So a full conversation about whether to sustain American aid to the military government currently in power in Cairo has to include a widening of the scope to the broader Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood, which the army deposed in a coup and the recent crackdown, is not just another domestic political party, so its defeat is not just a domestic concern. The Brotherhood represents the recent ascendancy of pan-Islamism that threatens to destabilize any non-Islamist government in the region.

A perfect example of that comes today from Reuters, which reports that Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood, is foundering now that its ally next door is out of power. Hamas’s relationship with its Iranian patron was strained by the civil war in Syria, which Iran and its proxies joined on the side of Bashar al-Assad, putting them at ideological odds with Hamas. The Gaza-based terrorist group therefore had arguably the most to lose with the Brotherhood’s exit from power in Egypt.

A weakened Brotherhood means a weakened Hamas, which means a slightly strengthened Fatah in the West Bank, which benefits the peace process and keeps American influence in the region active while Iran struggles to maintain its ability to make mischief in the Palestinian territories while simultaneously distracted in Syria. Additionally, the Reuters story notes that Hamas was relying on funding from the Qatari emir, but the emir’s heir does not seem to be nearly as interested in doling out cash to Hamas. The story also quotes an Israeli analyst arguing that Hamas will have to swallow some of its pride–and principles–to go crawling back to Iran:

Israeli analyst Yaari thought Iran would exact a price for welcoming Hamas back into the fold. “It will require them to stop opposing Assad and stop any criticism of Hezbollah’s intervention (in Syria) and Iranian support of Assad,” he said.

Even so, with the Brotherhood out of power in Egypt Hamas will have far more difficulty smuggling Iranian-funded weapons into the Gaza Strip. The next question, then, is: How much trouble is the Brotherhood in, at least in Egypt? The Washington Post argues today that it is facing “what many are describing as the worst crisis to confront Egypt’s 85-year-old Muslim Brotherhood.”

The primary reason seems to be that the Brotherhood cannot simply go back to its pre-Arab Spring role. Before the presidency of the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, the organization was an underground opposition network that offered a religious alternative to the Mubarak police state. But most importantly, it offered something to the non-Islamists as well. As the Post explains:

The Brotherhood is more than a political or religious group. It has been almost a shadow state in modern Egypt, winning over supporters over the decades with a vast network of charitable services, including dental clinics and thrift shops. It is the “mother of all Islamist movements,” in the words of Shadi Hamid, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Doha Center, having spawned dozens of related groups worldwide since its founding in 1928.

Throughout its history, the Brotherhood has repeatedly clashed with Egypt’s authoritarian governments, enduring arrests, torture and imprisonment. But what’s different now, analysts say, is that it’s battling not only a military-backed government but also the disdain of a broad swath of society. Many Egyptians are irate at Morsi for the country’s economic slide and the rise in crime during his one-year rule. Others complain that the Brotherhood tried to grab power by excluding minority political groups and trying to insulate its decisions from judicial review.

“It’s the first time to see the Muslim Brotherhood in conflict not only with the state — but with the whole of the state, [including] the bureaucracy, and the political elite, and an important part of society. It’s not a limited confrontation,” Rashwan said.

Gaining authority over the most significant and populous Arab country presented the Brotherhood with a classic high-risk, high-reward opportunity. The reward was obvious–power, influence, a certain degree of regional hegemony if not over neighboring governments then over their chief domestic opposition. The risk was that if it didn’t work out, it would not be so simple to go back to the way things were.

In Cairo, it did not work out. The Brotherhood in opposition was able to provide services to a public greatly in need of them, especially since Mubarak’s reign was marked by empty promises of economic reform. But then the Brotherhood came to power and turned its totalitarian oppression on the entire state.

If an Egyptian considered himself an atheist and a socialist, but only had access to dental care because of the Brotherhood, he was likely to still consider the Brotherhood an acceptable, and possibly preferable, alternative to the Egyptian state. That is no longer the case, and it explains why the Brotherhood, whose defeat would greatly benefit the West, is on the ropes.

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The Madness of King Erdogan

Since Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan invited Hamas to Istanbul in 2006, shortly after the Islamist terrorist organization won parliamentary elections in the Palestinian Authority, Israel-Turkey relations have deteriorated.

Erdogan has repeatedly exploited the Palestinian issue to score propaganda points both at home and with Arab and Muslim audiences and has sacrificed a strategic alliance over his pride, especially after the Israeli incursion into Gaza in late 2008 and the Mavi Marmara affair. Why Erdogan would take cheap shots at Israel has been repeatedly discussed here and elsewhere and needs not be rehashed.

But as his vicious rhetoric increasingly flirted with anti-Israel language, there was little opposition inside Turkey to this aspect of Erdogan’s boisterous style on the international stage. Even when he brought his personal animus to a debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres, whom he abruptly abandoned on stage in Davos, or when he sought revenge against Israel at NATO by seeking to exclude Israel from NATO-Mediterranean dialogue programs, or when he set up a kangaroo court against Israeli military personnel in Istanbul, few dared label this trend for what it was: political insanity and a self-inflicted wound.

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Since Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan invited Hamas to Istanbul in 2006, shortly after the Islamist terrorist organization won parliamentary elections in the Palestinian Authority, Israel-Turkey relations have deteriorated.

Erdogan has repeatedly exploited the Palestinian issue to score propaganda points both at home and with Arab and Muslim audiences and has sacrificed a strategic alliance over his pride, especially after the Israeli incursion into Gaza in late 2008 and the Mavi Marmara affair. Why Erdogan would take cheap shots at Israel has been repeatedly discussed here and elsewhere and needs not be rehashed.

But as his vicious rhetoric increasingly flirted with anti-Israel language, there was little opposition inside Turkey to this aspect of Erdogan’s boisterous style on the international stage. Even when he brought his personal animus to a debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres, whom he abruptly abandoned on stage in Davos, or when he sought revenge against Israel at NATO by seeking to exclude Israel from NATO-Mediterranean dialogue programs, or when he set up a kangaroo court against Israeli military personnel in Istanbul, few dared label this trend for what it was: political insanity and a self-inflicted wound.

As if one could act irrationally on one front while being reasonable on all other fronts, Turkish society continued to back Erdogan. After all, his regional policies appeared briefly to pay dividends–Turkey’s economy was booming, trade with Iran was booming, relations with Syria were thawing, and popularity across the Arab world for standing up to Israel gave Turkey the brief illusion it could regain its role of regional guide it lost at the end of the Ottoman Empire.

Madness, unfortunately, cannot be compartmentalized. Erdogan’s latest outburst–in which he, as Michael Rubin pointed out, accused Israel of being behind Egypt’s military coup while citing as the only evidence a public conversation between French intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy and Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni from two years ago (when she actually was in opposition)–is the acne of a conspiratorial mind that has lost touch with reality. So was, incidentally, the incessant, obsessive accusation, voiced by Erdogan and some of his ministers back in June, that the Gezi Park protests were orchestrated by foreign agents.

Turks should open their eyes to the fact that Erdogan’s obsession with conspiracies are a reflection of a man who is incapable of seeing reality in the eyes–and the increasingly disastrous foreign-policy outcomes of his decisions are one with this mindset, to say nothing of the harm he has inflicted on Turkish democratic standards. Turkey’s decision to flirt with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, support Islamist rebels in Syria, throw the strategic relation with Israel to the dogs, and increase tensions over Cyprus are all backfiring.

It was easy to dismiss his anti-Israel posture as clever or eccentric when Turkey’s foreign policy appeared set to conquer one success after another. Now that it is all ending in failure, maybe Turkish society can see that a man who sees dark conspiracies everywhere will not serve his country well–and that the harm he did to the Israel-Turkey relationship is part and parcel of the damage he is causing to the country as a whole.

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The Difference Between Syria and Egypt

For many, the Egyptian army’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood is reminiscent of both Muammar Gaddafi’s savagery in Libya and of the start of the civil war in Egypt. It is neither. While the Egyptian government—and the Muslim Brotherhood—have used live ammunition against each other in the streets with predictable consequences, the fighting remains largely confined to public spaces where the two sides meet in battle. There is not as yet, thankfully, evidence of the death squads which go through villages and disappear or simply execute those suspected of backing the other side.

There are major differences between the conflict in Egypt and that in Syria:

For many, the Egyptian army’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood is reminiscent of both Muammar Gaddafi’s savagery in Libya and of the start of the civil war in Egypt. It is neither. While the Egyptian government—and the Muslim Brotherhood—have used live ammunition against each other in the streets with predictable consequences, the fighting remains largely confined to public spaces where the two sides meet in battle. There is not as yet, thankfully, evidence of the death squads which go through villages and disappear or simply execute those suspected of backing the other side.

There are major differences between the conflict in Egypt and that in Syria:

  • In neither country has the violence been random. Syrian forces—both government and opposition—have readily engaged in ethnic and sectarian cleansing to carve out cantons for themselves. That is not the case in Egypt, where the two sides have fought openly in the streets. The closest Egypt comes is to the Muslim Brotherhood’s targeting of Christians for no other reasons than sheer religious and ideological spite.
  • While the Egyptian security forces have cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood in the streets and at demonstrations, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime sought to crush dissent by targeting children. The case of Hamza Alial-Khateeb really was the point of no return: The regime thought that it could curtail political opposition among parents if it targeted their children; instead, it crossed the point of no return. Syrians are likely to take far more seriously the videos of Hamza’s brutalized body rather than Secretary of State John Kerry’s calls for compromise. The Egyptian military, to its credit, has not hunted down and killed children for the sake of killing children.

Egypt may face an insurgency for years to come, but they should no more compromise with the Muslim Brotherhood than should the United States compromise with Hamas, Hezbollah, or al-Qaeda. What is happening in Egypt is tragic, but this conflict has been brewing for quite some time and facile demands for diplomacy or compromise can do more harm than good. Tahrir is not Tiananmen, and Egypt is not Syria. Journalists too often look for analogies, but they should do so with care. Picking the wrong analogy can lead to dangerously flawed policy.

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Bahrain in Perspective

Bahrain is a country that has a special place in my heart. The Bahrainis are—hands down—the warmest people in the Persian Gulf. The country is tolerant, multi-ethnic, and hosts Jewish and Christian communities alongside Muslim ones. Whereas the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait have erased much of their past, Bahraini culture through the decades and, indeed, centuries is still evident.

That said, Bahrain is still a very conflicted society. Much of the recent social tension in Bahrain is rooted in very deep, real, and inexcusable discrimination against that country’s Shi’ite majority. After visiting Bahrain last year, I reported here, here, here, and here about some of the issues. At one point, I had speculated that Bahrain might be heading for a “bloodbath,” and on that score I was wrong.

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Bahrain is a country that has a special place in my heart. The Bahrainis are—hands down—the warmest people in the Persian Gulf. The country is tolerant, multi-ethnic, and hosts Jewish and Christian communities alongside Muslim ones. Whereas the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait have erased much of their past, Bahraini culture through the decades and, indeed, centuries is still evident.

That said, Bahrain is still a very conflicted society. Much of the recent social tension in Bahrain is rooted in very deep, real, and inexcusable discrimination against that country’s Shi’ite majority. After visiting Bahrain last year, I reported here, here, here, and here about some of the issues. At one point, I had speculated that Bahrain might be heading for a “bloodbath,” and on that score I was wrong.

While I still believe that Bahrain must reform—the Shi’ites in Bahrain must have real opportunity and say in governance; the king must do more to implement his promises; and the prime minister should retire before his intolerant policies exacerbate the conflict more. True, too many casualties could have been avoided had Bahraini security forces not fired tear gas into a confined area or if they did not hamper medical treatment for injured protestors. On the other hand, much of the Bahraini opposition is sincere, but there are some elements which seek a very different future for Bahrain. Too often, leading figures’ quotes in English and Persian are radically different, and this breeds suspicion. Any trip to a Bahraini religious bookstore can be a scary visit given all the pro-Hassan Nasrallah, Imad Mughniyeh, or Ali Khamenei propaganda, as well as the CDs with the speeches of legal opposition leader Ali Salman set to religious music and distributed by al-Manar, the television station of Hezbollah.

Nevertheless, the Bahraini government also deserves credit for its relative restraint, especially in juxtaposition to the situation in Egypt. Alas, the United States for too long has bashed Bahrain despite the Bahraini government’s invaluable assistance to the United States in general and the United States Navy in particular. While we need to encourage real reform in Bahrain, when we compare the monarchy to other governments in the region, we see just how level-headed it is. That should be appreciated, instead of condemned. With such chaos in the Middle East, it is long past time that the United States value and reward friendship, even as it pressures for needed reforms.

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Erdoğan’s Anti-Semitic Obsession

Presidents and diplomats have for decades described Turkey as a model. In 2004, for example, President George W. Bush stood before a crowd of journalists in Ankara and praised Turkey. “I appreciate so very much the example your country has set on how to be a Muslim country and at the same time a country which embraces democracy and rule of law and freedom.” After the Arab Spring, politicians began to suggest that Turkey—with its supposed combination of Islam and democracy—might be a model for the Arab states in which Islamist parties sought for the first time to compete freely in elections.

Last week at the Chautauqua Institution, I gave a lengthy address suggesting that the notion of Turkey as a model for the Middle East was both wrong and dangerous, but Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has proven to be a model in other ways: He has single-handedly shown how even Islamist leaders embraced in the West as the most moderate harbor noxious anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories. Almost two years ago, I wrote here about how Turkey was embracing the crudest anti-Semitism. Then, earlier this summer as Turks across the political spectrum rose up against Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism, he lashed out at some mysterious “Interest Rate Lobby,” a not-too-subtle reference to international Jewry which Erdoğan believes controls the markets. Not to be outdone, he has now accused Jews of masterminding the ouster of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. That’s right: Those Jews control the Egyptian military.

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Presidents and diplomats have for decades described Turkey as a model. In 2004, for example, President George W. Bush stood before a crowd of journalists in Ankara and praised Turkey. “I appreciate so very much the example your country has set on how to be a Muslim country and at the same time a country which embraces democracy and rule of law and freedom.” After the Arab Spring, politicians began to suggest that Turkey—with its supposed combination of Islam and democracy—might be a model for the Arab states in which Islamist parties sought for the first time to compete freely in elections.

Last week at the Chautauqua Institution, I gave a lengthy address suggesting that the notion of Turkey as a model for the Middle East was both wrong and dangerous, but Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has proven to be a model in other ways: He has single-handedly shown how even Islamist leaders embraced in the West as the most moderate harbor noxious anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories. Almost two years ago, I wrote here about how Turkey was embracing the crudest anti-Semitism. Then, earlier this summer as Turks across the political spectrum rose up against Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism, he lashed out at some mysterious “Interest Rate Lobby,” a not-too-subtle reference to international Jewry which Erdoğan believes controls the markets. Not to be outdone, he has now accused Jews of masterminding the ouster of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. That’s right: Those Jews control the Egyptian military.

Let’s be blunt: If Erdoğan is a model, then he is a model for bigotry. Turkey has an anti-Semitism problem, and it is personified by its leader. Any of those who still seek to embrace Erdoğan or see him as a friend through whom the United States can work are effectively endorsing a worldview that is little different from Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky or Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Yusuf Qaradawi.

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Setting America’s Position in the Mideast Back 40 Years

I sympathize with the frazzled Israeli diplomats who argue that halting U.S. aid to Egypt could endanger Israeli-Palestinian talks. Those talks are the only Mideast issue the Obama administration has shown any real interest in, and good salesmen always try to frame their pitch to appeal to their listeners’ interests. The argument is even correct, as far as it goes: The ousted Muslim Brotherhood government did back Hamas against the Palestinian Authority, while the current military government backs the PA against Hamas; that’s why the PA lauded the coup while Hamas denounced it.

Nevertheless, given that the talks haven’t a prayer of succeeding, backing Egypt’s military coup for their sake would be ridiculous. A much better argument, if anyone in Washington is still capable of hearing it, is the one Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev makes today: Not backing the coup could reverse one of America’s biggest foreign policy achievements of the 1970s–flipping Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states from the Soviet to the American camp. Today, Shalev warns, Saudi Arabia is begging Washington to support the coup, and refusing might send it and America’s other Arab clients straight back into Russia’s orbit:

To help make their point, the Saudis might attach the once-unthinkable photo of the meeting held earlier this month between their own Prince Bandar and a smiling Vladimir Putin. The Russian President, after all, has a proven track record in Syria of standing by an ally, even one who massacres his opponents by the tens of thousands. If Cairo turns to Moscow, Washington would be hard put to recover from the political black eye and the regional loss of face.

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I sympathize with the frazzled Israeli diplomats who argue that halting U.S. aid to Egypt could endanger Israeli-Palestinian talks. Those talks are the only Mideast issue the Obama administration has shown any real interest in, and good salesmen always try to frame their pitch to appeal to their listeners’ interests. The argument is even correct, as far as it goes: The ousted Muslim Brotherhood government did back Hamas against the Palestinian Authority, while the current military government backs the PA against Hamas; that’s why the PA lauded the coup while Hamas denounced it.

Nevertheless, given that the talks haven’t a prayer of succeeding, backing Egypt’s military coup for their sake would be ridiculous. A much better argument, if anyone in Washington is still capable of hearing it, is the one Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev makes today: Not backing the coup could reverse one of America’s biggest foreign policy achievements of the 1970s–flipping Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states from the Soviet to the American camp. Today, Shalev warns, Saudi Arabia is begging Washington to support the coup, and refusing might send it and America’s other Arab clients straight back into Russia’s orbit:

To help make their point, the Saudis might attach the once-unthinkable photo of the meeting held earlier this month between their own Prince Bandar and a smiling Vladimir Putin. The Russian President, after all, has a proven track record in Syria of standing by an ally, even one who massacres his opponents by the tens of thousands. If Cairo turns to Moscow, Washington would be hard put to recover from the political black eye and the regional loss of face.

Actually, almost any rational Mideast player today (Israel excepted) would rather have Moscow and Tehran as backers than Washington. Between them, Russia and Iran have supported their Syrian client with arms, diplomatic cover, money, and troops, while America has given the Syrian rebels nothing but empty rhetorical support. America has also done virtually nothing to help NATO ally Turkey, which has suffered both cross-border violence and a massive influx of Syrian refugees, even though Turkey’s prime minister is one of Obama’s favorite world leaders. Nor has it done much to help longstanding ally Jordan cope with the influx of refugees that threatens to overwhelm it.

Granted, Riyadh and its allies would be reluctant to share Russia’s patronage with Iran, which they loathe; they also remember who sent troops to protect them when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. But Washington’s current passivity is making Saudi Arabia fear that America has become a broken reed; hence its feelers to Russia, via the Bandar-Putin meeting. If Washington now abandons Egypt, that could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. And if Riyadh leaves the American camp, Egypt would swiftly follow suit.

Once, American politicians on both sides of the aisle understood that America has interests as well as values, and that sometimes, the only choices are between two evils. As an example, Shalev aptly cites America’s alliance with the Soviets during World War II. And currently, as Jonathan has argued repeatedly, Egypt’s army is the lesser evil compared to the radical Islamists of the Brotherhood.

But today, leading Republican foreign-policy voices like John McCain and Lindsey Graham are joining leading Democrats to demand that Obama jettison American interests in favor of a “clean hands” policy: We don’t care what becomes of the Middle East as long as we can dissociate ourselves from the violence.

If Obama succumbs to these demands, he will set America’s position in the Mideast back 40 years–to a time when it had no allies at all among countries that remain vital to global energy supplies.

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Obama’s Epic Middle East Failures

So now we learn that the Obama administration has secretly suspended most forms of military aid to Egypt.

As a matter of public policy, this strikes me–as it does several of my COMMENTARY colleagues–as unwise. It will only succeed in alienating the ruling power in Egypt. (The Wall Street Journal reports that “Egypt’s military-led government said it was ‘reviewing’ its strategic relationships with the U.S. and other Western governments critical of its crackdown on Islamists, deepening the divide between the Obama administration and Cairo.”) And for all our understandable reservations about supporting the Egyptian military in this conflict, especially after its recent crackdown, the military is still the preferable option. It’s not really a close call. Like the National Socialists in Germany in 1933, the Muslim Brotherhood won an election and took the occasion to impose an increasingly repressive, anti-Semitic, and anti-American rule. So from the perspective of American national security and morality, having the Muslim Brotherhood in power is considerably worse than having the Egyptian military in power. Among other things, at least the latter considers its main enemy to be Islamism rather than Israel.

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So now we learn that the Obama administration has secretly suspended most forms of military aid to Egypt.

As a matter of public policy, this strikes me–as it does several of my COMMENTARY colleagues–as unwise. It will only succeed in alienating the ruling power in Egypt. (The Wall Street Journal reports that “Egypt’s military-led government said it was ‘reviewing’ its strategic relationships with the U.S. and other Western governments critical of its crackdown on Islamists, deepening the divide between the Obama administration and Cairo.”) And for all our understandable reservations about supporting the Egyptian military in this conflict, especially after its recent crackdown, the military is still the preferable option. It’s not really a close call. Like the National Socialists in Germany in 1933, the Muslim Brotherhood won an election and took the occasion to impose an increasingly repressive, anti-Semitic, and anti-American rule. So from the perspective of American national security and morality, having the Muslim Brotherhood in power is considerably worse than having the Egyptian military in power. Among other things, at least the latter considers its main enemy to be Islamism rather than Israel.

As for the Obama administration, the American Interest’s Walter Russell Mead concludes his long piece with this assessment:

Meanwhile, at least somebody is getting some benefit out of America’s miserable crawl through the desert. For Egypt’s generals, hungry to use every scrap of material to whomp up patriotic fervor for their cause, every sign of American displeasure, every jet not delivered and every lecture sternly read, is pure gold. The one thing everybody in Egypt agrees on now is that the Americans are about the most horrible people around—arrogant, stupid, judgmental, impractical, and not to be trusted when the going gets tough. The liberals, the generals, the Mubarak family, the Christians, the Islamists: on this one point they can all agree.

With Professor Mead’s words in mind, I’d urge people to re-read Mr. Obama’s June 4, 2009 “New Beginning” speech in Cairo. We were assured it would be “momentous,” “groundbreaking,” “epic,” and “historic.” It would fulfill, in Obama’s words, his campaign commitment to “remake” relations with the Muslim world.

That was then. Today we have Egypt being torn apart by violence, Syria riven by civil war, Iraq being convulsed by increasing violence, Jordan being destabilized, Libya looking increasingly like a failed state, the war in Afghanistan sputtering toward failure, Iran continuing its march toward nuclear weapons, worrisome developments in Pakistan and Turkey, and Russia re-establishing a presence for the first time since the early 1970s. And that doesn’t even exhaust the list. America’s reputation is at a low ebb.

Even if you are willing to grant, as I do, that (a) governing is harder than giving speeches and (b) America’s capacity to shape events is limited, the president’s Middle East failures, especially when juxtaposed with his unearned arrogance, are staggering. And it’s certainly reasonable to judge Mr. Obama by his own words and standards.  

Barack Obama promised that if he were elected president he would “remake” the world. He has; and America is paying a terrible price for it.

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Egypt Begs a Broader Strategy

President Obama has been rightly criticized for his response to Libya, Syria, and Egypt. The problem is two-fold: slow reaction and inconsistency. After all, why a responsibility to protect in Libya, but not in Syria and Egypt? Leading from behind is often not leading, and certainly forfeits American leverage: see the disastrous aftermath of Libya’s liberation from mad dictator Muammar Gaddafi. More broadly, it is evident that the United States simply lacks a strategy when it comes to political Islam.

The Bush administration to some extent and the Obama administration that followed certainly reached out and experimented with embracing political Islam: witness both Bush and Obama with regard to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party in Turkey, as well as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s decision to welcome Hamas’s participation in the 2006 Palestinian elections. Obama has reached out to the Muslim Brotherhood from his first months in office, as the group became a more frequent target of engagement by the U.S. embassy in Cairo. In Libya, Tunisia, Turkey, and Egypt—and also among the Syrian opposition, with all due respect to Sen. John McCain—it is clear that American outreach to Islamists has not resulted in any benefit to U.S. national interests.

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President Obama has been rightly criticized for his response to Libya, Syria, and Egypt. The problem is two-fold: slow reaction and inconsistency. After all, why a responsibility to protect in Libya, but not in Syria and Egypt? Leading from behind is often not leading, and certainly forfeits American leverage: see the disastrous aftermath of Libya’s liberation from mad dictator Muammar Gaddafi. More broadly, it is evident that the United States simply lacks a strategy when it comes to political Islam.

The Bush administration to some extent and the Obama administration that followed certainly reached out and experimented with embracing political Islam: witness both Bush and Obama with regard to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party in Turkey, as well as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s decision to welcome Hamas’s participation in the 2006 Palestinian elections. Obama has reached out to the Muslim Brotherhood from his first months in office, as the group became a more frequent target of engagement by the U.S. embassy in Cairo. In Libya, Tunisia, Turkey, and Egypt—and also among the Syrian opposition, with all due respect to Sen. John McCain—it is clear that American outreach to Islamists has not resulted in any benefit to U.S. national interests.

Perhaps it’s time to recognize that militant Islamism isn’t simply the motivator of “workplace violence” as Obama has characterized the Fort Hood massacre, but a noxious political ideology which means both the United States and traditional notions of Western liberalism harm. The reason why so many proponents of the Muslim Brotherhood respond with ad hominem attacks when such arguments are advanced is that they simply have not substantive argument to respond constructively.

What we need is to take a lesson from the Cold War and begin to roll back political Islam: First in Egypt, and then in Gaza, Turkey, and elsewhere, but supporting opposition groups. Political Islamists will never be our friends, and so we should not waste time or effort siding with them but should rather engage with their adversaries. That does not mean Cold War-era embrace of dictatorship, but it does mean standing aloof from Islamist groups, recognizing that the Islamist embrace of the ballot box extends to Election Day only, and not beyond. Sometimes the best hope for democracy as an end result is not full democracy in the initial process.

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Tahrir Is Not Tiananmen

One of the more deceptive commentaries out there regarding the Muslim Brotherhood as it faces the Egyptian army’s crackdown is that the Brotherhood protestors are analogous to the Chinese dissidents and freedom seekers who, in 1989, faced down the Chinese Army in Tiananmen Square. It is a theme too good for the media to pass up. Here, for example, is the Guardian and here is the New York Daily News.

No doubt, the Egyptian military has been heavy-handed and has mishandled the media. And the Brotherhood, in contrast, has been media savvy from the very beginning. Just remember all the Brotherhood spokesmen and Brotherhood sympathizers who falsely spoke of the group’s evolution, moderation, and tolerance. The Brotherhood knows how to use the rhetoric of democracy and liberalism for entirely opposite purposes.

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One of the more deceptive commentaries out there regarding the Muslim Brotherhood as it faces the Egyptian army’s crackdown is that the Brotherhood protestors are analogous to the Chinese dissidents and freedom seekers who, in 1989, faced down the Chinese Army in Tiananmen Square. It is a theme too good for the media to pass up. Here, for example, is the Guardian and here is the New York Daily News.

No doubt, the Egyptian military has been heavy-handed and has mishandled the media. And the Brotherhood, in contrast, has been media savvy from the very beginning. Just remember all the Brotherhood spokesmen and Brotherhood sympathizers who falsely spoke of the group’s evolution, moderation, and tolerance. The Brotherhood knows how to use the rhetoric of democracy and liberalism for entirely opposite purposes.

The Tiananmen-to-Tahrir analogy is especially noxious because it slanders the Chinese dissidents who peacefully challenged the Chinese dictatorship’s iron grip.

  • The Tiananmen protestors were non-violent; what we have in Egypt is a two-sided fight that has resulted in dozens of police deaths.
  • The Tiananmen protestors were fighting for democracy; the Brotherhood used their year in power to eviscerate pluralism, which is why so many Egyptians rose up against them.
  • The Tiananmen protestors embraced ideological diversity; the Brotherhood seeks ideological conformity.
  • I don’t remember ever seeing the Tiananmen protestors take their ire out on China’s religious minorities.

That Egypt has turned violent is unfortunate, but it is not the first time: Egypt faced insurgency during the late 1980s and early 1990s. That the Islamists are weaker does not make them right. Nor does it make them democratic. When faced with a stark choice, it is essential to determine which side best protects American national interests and which can best return Egypt to the path of democracy, with all the checks and balances which are inherent in the system. In both cases, the Egyptian army seems the better bet, and the pressure the international community should bring to bear is to encourage a firm timeline to new elections under a new, more pluralistic constitution. What the Western media and Congress should not do is whitewash the Muslim Brotherhood’s brutality, even as it condemns the Egyptian security forces. And if the goal is democracy, it should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Nor should it embrace facile but false analogies.

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The Perils of Proportionality

Much of the outrage directed at the Egyptian military is a direct result of the death toll from Wednesday’s battles on the streets of Cairo. Make no mistake: the Egyptian state may have had better weaponry, but these were battles plain and simple. The interior ministry says it lost several dozen officers, and that too is a tragedy. The notion that the United States should castigate or abandon the Egyptian army because it caused more deaths than the Muslim Brotherhood is short-sighted and based on the corrosive notion that the stronger side has a responsibility for restraint.

One of the biggest differences between the right and the left today is that the left always demonizes power, while the right recognizes that power can be used for good or for ill. Too many in the media and the State Department suffer from the David and Goliath syndrome in which they bestow sympathy and perhaps even a sense of justice on the weakest side, regardless of its beliefs and goals.

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Much of the outrage directed at the Egyptian military is a direct result of the death toll from Wednesday’s battles on the streets of Cairo. Make no mistake: the Egyptian state may have had better weaponry, but these were battles plain and simple. The interior ministry says it lost several dozen officers, and that too is a tragedy. The notion that the United States should castigate or abandon the Egyptian army because it caused more deaths than the Muslim Brotherhood is short-sighted and based on the corrosive notion that the stronger side has a responsibility for restraint.

One of the biggest differences between the right and the left today is that the left always demonizes power, while the right recognizes that power can be used for good or for ill. Too many in the media and the State Department suffer from the David and Goliath syndrome in which they bestow sympathy and perhaps even a sense of justice on the weakest side, regardless of its beliefs and goals.

This was the case with Occupy Wall Street, an amorphous group with a huge sense of entitlement but no defined ideology besides the nihilistic. And, when it comes to terrorism, too many in the West bend over backwards to comprehend the terrorists’ point of view. There are two general ways to interpret terrorist motivation: One is through the prism of grievance and the other through an understanding of religious ideology. If analysts embrace the idea that grievance motivates terrorism, then the natural policy response is to try to address that grievance and force concessions from the stronger side. The reality of Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Shabaab, Hezbollah, the Taliban, and other Islamist movements, however, is that grievance is often window-dressing for ideological totalitarianism.

Even if the United States does not officially believe in direct diplomacy with all of these groups, it and the United Nations often seek to transform them into Davids, no matter how murderous their intent. Hence, Israel is castigated when—pushed to the limit by Hamas rockets—it responds with targeted strikes that kill Hamas activists and sometimes, unfortunately, bystanders. Never mind that Hamas targets civilian areas and Israel bends over backwards to mitigate collateral damage. One of the more disingenuous arguments that comes from defenders of Palestinian terrorism is that terrorists must fire homemade rockets or detonate suicide vests because they don’t have F-16s and advanced tanks. The reason why such arguments fall flat is they imply that if Palestinians did have advanced jet aircraft and armor, they would simply use that to attack Israel and thus make the casualty count more proportionate.

The same holds true for Iraq. Diplomats and journalists criticized Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for an incident in Fallujah in which a clash between government forces and Sunni protestors resulted in the deaths of several dozen Sunni protestors. That the Iraqi government first moved in with water cannons and were fired upon by supposedly “non-violent” protestors waving al-Qaeda flags was justification enough. That government troops didn’t die in numbers proportional to the Sunni extremists is not something to condemn, but rather to applaud, for it shows good training.

Back to Egypt: in recent days, the Muslim Brotherhood has suffered the brunt of the violence, but that does not exculpate it: The Brotherhood is frenzied enough that if it had access to greater weaponry, it would simply kill more.

John Kerry and Barack Obama may embrace the idea of negotiated settlements in Egypt and Syria, but history suggests the idea of diplomatic settlements absent first a violent resolution to conflict is fantasy. Before diplomacy can succeed, all parties must recognize that they can only get through the negotiating table what they cannot get through violence. Often, that occurs when one side wins decisively and the other side loses. This was a lesson best encapsulated by the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, hailed as a hero for peace, but who decided to negotiate only after trying to achieve his aims via war, only to suffer a humiliating defeat.

So what should the United States do? So long as the Muslim Brotherhood seeks to turn back the clock, impose its hateful and intolerant ideology upon Egyptians of all religiosities and religions, and refuses to abide by the pathway to transitional elections, and so long as it continues to fight in the streets, then it should suffer the consequences of its actions. And if those consequences result in exponentially higher Brotherhood casualties than army casualties, then so be it. That is the truest path to peace.

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“The Problems Are More Difficult Than I Imagined Them to Be”

As readers of this site know, I’m more than willing to criticize President Obama when I think that facts warrant it. And for the record, I believe that his policies toward the Middle East have often been inept and demonstrably unsuccessful, and they’ve certainly fallen short of the “new beginning” he promised in Cairo in 2009.

That said, it’s also important to recognize that even if Barack Obama had done everything right, things in Egypt might be roughly where they are today. It may be the case that the capacity of the United States to influence events in Egypt was intrinsically limited. The popular movement to overthrow Hosni Mubarak, after all, was organic; it was not driven by American policy. There’s nothing we could have done to save Mubarak’s rule. And in fact the Obama administration itself stuck with Mubarak until very nearly the end of his rule.

Once the Muslim Brotherhood took over, our ability to dictate how Morsi governed was limited as well, despite the huge aid we give to Egypt. Several administrations attempted to pressure Mubarak, after all, to ease up on his authoritarian ways, with little to show for it. Mr. Morsi was an even tougher nut to crack.

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As readers of this site know, I’m more than willing to criticize President Obama when I think that facts warrant it. And for the record, I believe that his policies toward the Middle East have often been inept and demonstrably unsuccessful, and they’ve certainly fallen short of the “new beginning” he promised in Cairo in 2009.

That said, it’s also important to recognize that even if Barack Obama had done everything right, things in Egypt might be roughly where they are today. It may be the case that the capacity of the United States to influence events in Egypt was intrinsically limited. The popular movement to overthrow Hosni Mubarak, after all, was organic; it was not driven by American policy. There’s nothing we could have done to save Mubarak’s rule. And in fact the Obama administration itself stuck with Mubarak until very nearly the end of his rule.

Once the Muslim Brotherhood took over, our ability to dictate how Morsi governed was limited as well, despite the huge aid we give to Egypt. Several administrations attempted to pressure Mubarak, after all, to ease up on his authoritarian ways, with little to show for it. Mr. Morsi was an even tougher nut to crack.

As for what to do now, the issues seem to me to be complex and difficult to sort through. Would it be wise to cut off aid to the Egyptian military after yesterday’s massacres? If we do, won’t that diminish our leverage in the future and alienate the current leadership? As LBJ is purported to have said, they may be bastards–but at least they’re our bastards (at least in comparison to the Muslim Brotherhood).

On the flip side, if we don’t cut off aid, doesn’t that undermine our professed commitment to human rights, free elections and the rule of law? And as Max Boot asks, hasn’t the crackdown demonstrated that we have very little leverage to lose? If we can’t influence the Egyptian military, shouldn’t we at least stand for American principles? 

And what about the Muslim Brotherhood? Should we press for it to be part of a post-military rule coalition? Or would that be unwise and impractical? If not, what should happen to the Brotherhood? Should we view events in Egypt as tragic and unfortunate–but also recognize that the Egyptian military, for all its faults, is vastly superior to the Brotherhood? Shouldn’t we understand that to undermine the military at this moment would be to encourage the Brotherhood to continue to fight to regain power?

I have my own thoughts on these matters, but they are tentative. And they should be. After all, I was among those who was moved by the protests in Tahrir Square in 2011 and hopeful of what a post-Mubarak Egypt would look like. Things turned out a good deal worse than I expected. So modesty in predicting the outcome of events is warranted, at least in my case.

Beyond that I’m reminded, in part because I’ve served in three administrations, that the world is untidy, that events are contingent, and that arguments that sound reasonable and logical when discussing them in the Situation Room often don’t work out in the real world. The difference between being a commentator and working in the White House is that in the case of the latter the consequences of being wrong can be far more durable and damaging.

That doesn’t mean that President Obama, or for that matter any other president, shouldn’t be criticized for his policies and his failures. Nor does it mean Mr. Obama shouldn’t be held accountable for the promises he made before and shortly after he took office, when he seemed to be under the impression that he could shape world events like hot wax. But I for one can’t help having some sympathy for those in the Obama administration who right now are being forced to make decisions about rapidly unfolding events, based on incomplete knowledge, with an imperfect ability to predict the consequences of each course of action. I recall during my years in government being struck by the fact that making the right decision seemed a good deal more obvious when I was on the outside looking in rather than on the inside looking out. 

In an interview in 1962, President Kennedy was asked whether his experience in office matched his expectation and whether things had worked out as he saw in advance. President Kennedy responded this way:

So that I would say that the problems are more difficult than I had imagined them to be. The responsibilities placed on the United States are greater than I imagined them to be, and there are greater limitations upon our ability to bring about a favorable result than I had imagined them to be. And I think that is probably true of anyone who becomes President, because there is such a difference between those who advise or speak or legislate, and between the man who must select from the various alternatives proposed and say that this shall be the policy of the United States. It is much easier to make the speeches than it is to finally make the judgments, because unfortunately your advisers are frequently divided. If you take the wrong course, and on occasion I have, the President bears the burden of the responsibility quite rightly. The advisers may move on to new advice.

So will the commentators.

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Bolster Military-to-Military Ties with Egypt

I was no fan of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship. Realist castigation of the White House for abandoning Mubarak is a bit dishonest: Pinning American national security to cancer-stricken octogenarians is seldom a wise long-term strategy.

The Obama administration’s flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood was another thing entirely: Political correctness is annoying at the best of times, for it provides an excuse for dissenters to dismiss based on window-dressing rather than address core ideas that merit debate. It is especially dangerous, however, when true believers embrace political correctness as a doctrine and actually believe the pap that extremist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements are misunderstood, or that Islamist anti-Americanism is rooted in grievance rather than ideology. The Muslim Brotherhood was aiming to be the Egyptian and Islamist equivalent of the Khmer Rouge. They disdained democracy and their crocodile tears regarding democratic wrongs are nothing but window-dressing.

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I was no fan of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship. Realist castigation of the White House for abandoning Mubarak is a bit dishonest: Pinning American national security to cancer-stricken octogenarians is seldom a wise long-term strategy.

The Obama administration’s flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood was another thing entirely: Political correctness is annoying at the best of times, for it provides an excuse for dissenters to dismiss based on window-dressing rather than address core ideas that merit debate. It is especially dangerous, however, when true believers embrace political correctness as a doctrine and actually believe the pap that extremist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements are misunderstood, or that Islamist anti-Americanism is rooted in grievance rather than ideology. The Muslim Brotherhood was aiming to be the Egyptian and Islamist equivalent of the Khmer Rouge. They disdained democracy and their crocodile tears regarding democratic wrongs are nothing but window-dressing.

One of the greatest ironies of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ouster from power is that Western liberals are more concerned about the injustice suffered by the Brethren than are their one-time funders in the Arab world. While senators and diplomats were beating themselves up about how unfair events were for Mohamed Morsi and crew, it was the Saudis and Emiratis who cut their ties quickly and without regret. Perhaps the pattern is repeating in which the West’s useful idiots believe Muslim Brotherhood spokesmen who say tolerant things in English while those who understand what the Brotherhood is saying in Arabic understand truly for what the group stands.

At any rate, there are two sides in the immediate Egyptian fight, and their demands are mutually exclusive. One will win, and one will lose and, like Jonathan, let us hope for the sake of U.S. national security that the military wins in the short term. That is not to bless military dictatorship, but building up a more liberal and democratic alternative might take years if not decades and that simply would not be possible under a Muslim Brotherhood regime.

Maintaining leverage with the Egyptian military therefore becomes a paramount U.S. interest. The State Department likes to think that they maintain a monopoly over diplomacy, but the reality is that American generals are often better diplomats when the crisis erupts. After all, diplomats have cocktail parties and an occasional conference, but military officers have staff college classes that often last months, if not years. Over the course of a promising officer’s career, he might find himself in class or in exercises with the same foreign officer multiple times. Not surprisingly, friendships develop between families and relationships run deep. That may not be something which President Obama—who has never served in the military—understands. Nor is it something to which Secretary of State John Kerry—who appears to hold the military in disdain—will care to admit. Alas, while Kerry chides the Egyptians and promotes the type of unthinking compromise that a proverbial State Department kindergartener might have formulated, he and Obama appear to be abandoning the one tool with which they can have some leverage: the military-to-military relationship.

First, the U.S. suspended F-16 sales to Egypt—a silly thing to do since such sales aren’t simply about airplanes, but also about long-term training relationships. Next, Obama cancelled the Bright Star exercises, again an opportunity for multiple senior U.S. officers to have quiet tête-à-têtes with their Egyptian counterparts. If the White House truly wanted to restrain the Egyptian army, then that would be a far better way to convey that message rather than putting John Kerry on television, or having a U.S. embassy which has mismanaged its way into irrelevance deliver a demarche. With leverage so fleeting, how unfortunate it is that Obama wants to eliminate what remains.

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The Muslim Brotherhood’s Shameful Nobel Laureate

When Islamist radicals in Pakistan’s tribal territories shot 14-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousefzai, the world condemned the senseless act of terrorism. The Pakistani Taliban had, like the Chechen Islamists who massacred children in Beslan nearly a decade ago, simply miscalculated that even those prone to support extremists and terrorists draw the line at targeting children (or, at least non-Jewish children).

In the wake of the assassination attempt on the young advocate for girls’ education, there was one so-called peace activist who was noticeably silent: 2011 Nobel Laureate Tawakkul Karman. Karman was selected not only because she was a Yemeni political activist—rising up courageously to challenge the dictatorship of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh—but also because she was affiliated with a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate. The head of the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee told the Associated Press, “Karman belongs to a Muslim movement with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, ‘which in the West is perceived as a threat to democracy.’ He added that ‘I don’t believe that. There are many signals that, that kind of movement can be an important part of the solution.’”

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When Islamist radicals in Pakistan’s tribal territories shot 14-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousefzai, the world condemned the senseless act of terrorism. The Pakistani Taliban had, like the Chechen Islamists who massacred children in Beslan nearly a decade ago, simply miscalculated that even those prone to support extremists and terrorists draw the line at targeting children (or, at least non-Jewish children).

In the wake of the assassination attempt on the young advocate for girls’ education, there was one so-called peace activist who was noticeably silent: 2011 Nobel Laureate Tawakkul Karman. Karman was selected not only because she was a Yemeni political activist—rising up courageously to challenge the dictatorship of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh—but also because she was affiliated with a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate. The head of the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee told the Associated Press, “Karman belongs to a Muslim movement with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, ‘which in the West is perceived as a threat to democracy.’ He added that ‘I don’t believe that. There are many signals that, that kind of movement can be an important part of the solution.’”

Karman did not hesitate, however, to condemn the Egyptian government’s crackdown in Cairo—even before the recent violence. She found no time to worry about the Muslim Brotherhood’s targeting of Christians or ousted President Mohamed Morsi’s abuse of power, but violence perpetrated against Islamists was, for the Nobel Laureate, another thing entirely.

Herein lies the problem: For too many affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood or its affiliates, there exists different standards for Islamists and for non-Islamists. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan—himself leading a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated group—famously exculpated indicted war criminal Omar Al-Bashir because the Koran cleared the Sudanese Islamist president. Karman delegitimized herself when she refused to speak up for an innocent school girl targeted by militant Islamists. If she wants us to believe she is an honest broker and carries any weight in her support for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood now, she should be quickly disabused of that notion.

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How Can Israel Entrust Its Security to People Who Got Egypt So Wrong?

To the many reasons why the current Israeli-Palestinian “peace talks” are a nonstarter, we can now add another: the situation in Egypt. The problem isn’t just that the chaos on Israel’s previously stable southern border decreases its willingness to take “risks for peace” that could replicate this situation in the West Bank. It’s also what the situation says about the Obama administration’s judgment.

As the Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros reminds us, when the Egyptian revolution broke out two years ago, the administration sought guidance in historical precedents:

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To the many reasons why the current Israeli-Palestinian “peace talks” are a nonstarter, we can now add another: the situation in Egypt. The problem isn’t just that the chaos on Israel’s previously stable southern border decreases its willingness to take “risks for peace” that could replicate this situation in the West Bank. It’s also what the situation says about the Obama administration’s judgment.

As the Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros reminds us, when the Egyptian revolution broke out two years ago, the administration sought guidance in historical precedents:

According to the New York Times, President Obama asked his staff to study transitions in more than 50 countries around the world in order to understand and predict where Egypt and other countries in the Middle East might be heading. After extensive study, his staffers predicted “that Egypt is analogous to South Korea, the Philippines and Chile.” Months later, the administration was still confident in its assessment. While aware of the obstacles that were on the way during the desired transition to democracy, Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor was adamant that, “The trajectory of change is in the right direction.”

Needless to say, Egypt turned out nothing like South Korea, the Philippines, or Chile. The Muslim Brotherhood took power, only to prove both so incompetent and so anti-democratic that a year later, the military ousted it by popular demand (anti-Brotherhood demonstrations drew an incredible 14 million people into the streets). The Brotherhood didn’t go quietly, and now there’s a risk that this week’s carnage in Cairo will spark a civil war.

None of this was unpredictable. Indeed, from the very beginning, Israeli officials warned unanimously that nothing good would come of Egypt’s revolution, and most Israeli commentators (myself included) agreed–for which we were roundly condemned by members of America’s foreign-policy establishment. Nor is it really surprising that Israel’s assessments proved more accurate than America’s: What happens in Israel’s immediate neighborhood has far more impact on Israelis’ lives than it does on Americans, and therefore Israelis invest more time and effort in trying to understand it.

Yet now the same people who got Egypt so badly wrong are demanding that Israelis trust them to referee an Israeli-Palestinian deal. The administration even sent a senior general, former U.S. commander in Afghanistan John Allen, “to define Israel’s security requirements” for it–and woe betide Israel if it begs to differ. But actually, President Barack Obama didn’t bother waiting for Allen’s conclusions; he asserted two years ago that the border must be “based on the 1967 lines,” and that this is perfectly compatible with Israel’s security needs. Never mind that no Israeli map of defensible borders has ever agreed.

In other words, the administration has already made clear that it won’t support Israel’s security demands; it expects Israel to bow to its judgment. But the people who thought Egypt’s revolution was going to resemble Chile or South Korea aren’t people whose judgment Israel can possibly rely on to assure its vital security needs. Under this situation, reaching a deal that satisfies Israel’s minimum security needs would be impossible even if all the other issues were somehow magically resolved.

But in fact, Secretary of State John Kerry has made it clear he wants to deal with borders and security first. And that means the blow-up won’t be long in coming.

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Why Does the Muslim Brotherhood Attack Churches?

The world is focusing much of its sympathy today on the members of the Muslim Brotherhood that were gunned down in the streets of Cairo by armed police and soldiers seeking to end the Islamist attempt to put Mohamed Morsi back into power. The violence is regrettable and the casualties are widely interpreted as evidence of the brutality of the military regime that toppled Morsi and his Brotherhood regime last month. But the notion that the Brotherhood is the innocent victim of a nasty junta seeking to bring back Mubarak-era authoritarianism is only half right. Though the military government is an unsavory partner for the United States, no one should be under any illusions about the Brotherhood or why the majority of Egyptians (who went to the streets in their millions to support a coup) probably approve of the military’s actions.

Proof of the true nature of the Brotherhood was available for those who read accounts in the last weeks of life at their Cairo encampments that were policed by Islamist thugs with clubs and other weapons. Brotherhood gunmen fought the police in pitched battles. Non-violent civil disobedience isn’t in the Brotherhood playbook. Even more damning was the Brotherhood response elsewhere in Egypt. As the International Business Times reports:

Supporters of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi have attacked churches in Dilga, Menya and Sohag after government security forces backed by armored cars and bulldozers stormed protest camps outside Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque.

The Churches of Abraham and the Virgin Mary in Menya were burning after Morsi supporters set fire to the outside of the building exteriors and smashed through doors. … Muslim Brotherhood members also threw firebombs at Mar Gergiss church in Sohag, a city with a large community of Coptic Christians who represents up to 10 percent of Egypt’s 84 million people, causing it to burn down, the official MENA news agency said. Protesters threw Molotov cocktails at the Bon Pasteur Catholic Church and Monastery in Suez, setting it ablaze and breaking windows.

Why is the Brotherhood attacking churches as part of its argument with the military government?

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The world is focusing much of its sympathy today on the members of the Muslim Brotherhood that were gunned down in the streets of Cairo by armed police and soldiers seeking to end the Islamist attempt to put Mohamed Morsi back into power. The violence is regrettable and the casualties are widely interpreted as evidence of the brutality of the military regime that toppled Morsi and his Brotherhood regime last month. But the notion that the Brotherhood is the innocent victim of a nasty junta seeking to bring back Mubarak-era authoritarianism is only half right. Though the military government is an unsavory partner for the United States, no one should be under any illusions about the Brotherhood or why the majority of Egyptians (who went to the streets in their millions to support a coup) probably approve of the military’s actions.

Proof of the true nature of the Brotherhood was available for those who read accounts in the last weeks of life at their Cairo encampments that were policed by Islamist thugs with clubs and other weapons. Brotherhood gunmen fought the police in pitched battles. Non-violent civil disobedience isn’t in the Brotherhood playbook. Even more damning was the Brotherhood response elsewhere in Egypt. As the International Business Times reports:

Supporters of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi have attacked churches in Dilga, Menya and Sohag after government security forces backed by armored cars and bulldozers stormed protest camps outside Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque.

The Churches of Abraham and the Virgin Mary in Menya were burning after Morsi supporters set fire to the outside of the building exteriors and smashed through doors. … Muslim Brotherhood members also threw firebombs at Mar Gergiss church in Sohag, a city with a large community of Coptic Christians who represents up to 10 percent of Egypt’s 84 million people, causing it to burn down, the official MENA news agency said. Protesters threw Molotov cocktails at the Bon Pasteur Catholic Church and Monastery in Suez, setting it ablaze and breaking windows.

Why is the Brotherhood attacking churches as part of its argument with the military government?

The first reason is because the Christian minority, unlike the military, is vulnerable. Throughout the long year when Egypt suffered under Morsi’s Islamist rule, Christians and their churches were increasingly subject to attacks as the Muslim movement sought to make the position of the religious minority untenable. As the Brotherhood seeks to demonstrate that it is still a viable force in the country’s streets even after its Cairo strongholds are uprooted, expect more attacks on Christians to remind Egyptians that the Islamists are still a force to be reckoned with.

Second, the attacks on churches are not just a regrettable sideshow in what may be soon seen as a civil war as the Islamists seek to regain power after losing in the wake of the massive street protests that encouraged the army to launch the coup that ended Morsi’s rule. Rather, such attacks are an inextricable part of their worldview as they seek to transform Egypt in their own Islamist image. In the Muslim Brotherhood’s Egypt, there is no room for Christians or even secular Muslims. That is why so many in Egypt applauded the coup as perhaps the last chance to save the country from permanent Islamist rule.

The church attacks should remind the West that the stakes in the conflict in Egypt are high. If the U.S. seeks to cripple the military, they won’t be helping the cause of democracy. The Brotherhood may have used a seemingly democratic process to take power in 2012, but they would never have peacefully relinquished it or allowed their opponents to stop them from imposing their will on every aspect of Egyptian society. As difficult as it may be for some high-minded Americans to understand, in this case it is the military and not the protesters in Cairo who are seeking to stop tyranny. Though the military is an unattractive ally, anyone seeking to cut off vital U.S. aid to Egypt should remember that the only alternative to it is the party that is currently burning churches.

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Don’t Back the Wrong Side in Egypt

The resignation of Mohamed ElBaradei as vice president of Egypt’s interim government and the declaration of a state of emergency in the wake of the violence in the streets of Cairo today will, no doubt, add to the pressure on President Obama to cut off aid to the Egyptian military. With hundreds dead and the pretense that the post-coup regime is anything but a rerun of Hosni Mubarak’s military dictatorship debunked, the impulse in Washington will be to express outrage and to say or do something to disassociate the United States from what has happened. After Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham went to Cairo last week and asked the military to avoid a conflict and to negotiate some sort of agreement that would bring the ousted Muslim Brotherhood back into the government, the decision of General al-Sisi to ignore their advice and unleash his troops will be regarded as reason enough to cut off U.S. aid to Egypt.

That is, to some extent, understandable. But it would be a terrible mistake for the administration to do anything that would worsen the burgeoning conflict in Egypt. The coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi as well as the police action in Cairo contradicts American principles as well as specific warnings issued by Washington. But it needs to be reiterated that democracy is not one of the choices available in Egypt. An Obama condemnation of the Egyptian military might make some Americans feel good. But far better would be a presidential acknowledgment that the Arab Spring is over and that the priority is not the resurrection of a fake democracy there but to prevent Islamists from ever getting another chance of imposing their extreme ideology on Egypt or the entire region.

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The resignation of Mohamed ElBaradei as vice president of Egypt’s interim government and the declaration of a state of emergency in the wake of the violence in the streets of Cairo today will, no doubt, add to the pressure on President Obama to cut off aid to the Egyptian military. With hundreds dead and the pretense that the post-coup regime is anything but a rerun of Hosni Mubarak’s military dictatorship debunked, the impulse in Washington will be to express outrage and to say or do something to disassociate the United States from what has happened. After Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham went to Cairo last week and asked the military to avoid a conflict and to negotiate some sort of agreement that would bring the ousted Muslim Brotherhood back into the government, the decision of General al-Sisi to ignore their advice and unleash his troops will be regarded as reason enough to cut off U.S. aid to Egypt.

That is, to some extent, understandable. But it would be a terrible mistake for the administration to do anything that would worsen the burgeoning conflict in Egypt. The coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi as well as the police action in Cairo contradicts American principles as well as specific warnings issued by Washington. But it needs to be reiterated that democracy is not one of the choices available in Egypt. An Obama condemnation of the Egyptian military might make some Americans feel good. But far better would be a presidential acknowledgment that the Arab Spring is over and that the priority is not the resurrection of a fake democracy there but to prevent Islamists from ever getting another chance of imposing their extreme ideology on Egypt or the entire region.

As disturbing as the video coming out of Cairo today may be, it should be remembered that the victims of the military crackdown are not the peaceful democratic protesters that they are sometimes depicted as being. The Brotherhood is a totalitarian Islamist movement that would never have peacefully relinquished power if it had not been overthrown by the military. Though it embraced democracy as a tactic to attain power, it did not and does not believe in it. Its protest sites in Cairo were armed camps, befitting an organization that was always more of an Islamist militia than a political party.

That means that the calls issued by Americans for a peaceful resolution to the standoff were largely meaningless. Nothing short of a full-fledged military operation would have ever persuaded the Brotherhood to go home. Brutal though the attack on these encampments was, the notion that it could have been accomplished by more pacific methods is probably absurd.

The United States should always advocate for democracy and respect for human rights. But it needs to be understood that releasing Morsi or bringing the Brotherhood into a new government would not have advanced those goals. Egypt’s current leaders understand something that President Obama and his foreign policy advisors never have: the struggle in Egypt has always been a zero-sum game in which the choices are reduced to the military or the Brotherhood.

Now is the time for Washington to stay the course and to refuse to give in to the impulse to cut off Egypt. After more than a year of embracing the Brotherhood government of Morsi, it has been hard for Obama to realize that he made a mistake. But if he seeks to punish the Egyptian military for doing exactly what the majority of the Egyptian people want them to do, he will be compounding that error. 

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Egypt’s Return to Military Rule

Governments, understandably, have a history of not tolerating large sit-ins occupying a substantial area in the middle of their capital. But attempts to end such sit-ins have a way of turning out badly. It was not just the Tiananmen Square protest in Beijing in 1989 that ended in a bloodbath. On a lesser level there was Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s heavy-handed dispersal of the Bonus Army, made up of World War I veterans, in Washington in 1932, which forever sullied his image.

Now comes the Egyptian army’s dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Cairo, an attack which has left at least 95 dead (a toll that is certain to grow) and led Mohamed ElBaradei, one of Egypt’s vice presidents, to resign in protest. ElBaradei’s departure from the government, to which he was providing a fig leaf of civil legitimacy, may prove especially significant because it is making the regime in Cairo look increasingly not like a transitional military regime but a permanent military regime.

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Governments, understandably, have a history of not tolerating large sit-ins occupying a substantial area in the middle of their capital. But attempts to end such sit-ins have a way of turning out badly. It was not just the Tiananmen Square protest in Beijing in 1989 that ended in a bloodbath. On a lesser level there was Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s heavy-handed dispersal of the Bonus Army, made up of World War I veterans, in Washington in 1932, which forever sullied his image.

Now comes the Egyptian army’s dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Cairo, an attack which has left at least 95 dead (a toll that is certain to grow) and led Mohamed ElBaradei, one of Egypt’s vice presidents, to resign in protest. ElBaradei’s departure from the government, to which he was providing a fig leaf of civil legitimacy, may prove especially significant because it is making the regime in Cairo look increasingly not like a transitional military regime but a permanent military regime.

This impression is heightened by the fact that 19 out of 25 of the provincial governors just named to office yesterday are generals. Moreover, Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who led the military coup that toppled Mohamed Morsi (now being held at a secret site and likely to be tried on treason charges), has not ruled out running for president himself.

It is looking increasingly as if very little has changed since Hosni Mubarak was toppled–except the name of the general in charge. Egypt appears to be returning to military rule, in ways both good (increased cooperation with Israel in rooting out security threats) and bad (increased repression and the heightened risk of a civil war). If this is the way Egypt’s military goes about restoring “democracy,” I would hate to see how it imposes dictatorship.

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Hamas Can’t Be Wished Away in Gaza

Even optimists about the new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks acknowledge that the Hamas problem makes it difficult to imagine an actual agreement coming out of the negotiations. So long as Gaza is ruled by Hamas and Hamas is unwilling to recognize Israel’s existence, let alone its legitimacy, how could any accord survive? But some are seeking to downplay this all-too-obvious flaw in Secretary of State John Kerry’s reasoning in making his diplomatic push by arguing that the Islamist rulers of Gaza (which contains 40 percent of the Arab population of the disputed territories) are either weak or about to fall.

The glass-half-full peace process scenario seems to rest on the assumption that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas will get a major boost in popularity if he is able to win, with the help of American pressure, an Israeli withdrawal and an independent state. The hope is that this will render Hamas’s opposition ineffective. An even more wildly optimistic scenario goes so far as to envisage Hamas falling from power or becoming so weak that talk of a merger with Fatah becomes a reality, thus ending the Palestinian schism and easing the way to peace.

Unfortunately, this sort of optimism tells us more about the desire on the part of some in both the United States and Israel to ignore the reality of Palestinian politics than it does about the possibility of regime change in Gaza. For example, even if we take all the assertions in veteran Israeli journalist and author Ehud Yaari’s analysis of the situation in Gaza in the New Republic at face value, there is very little reason to believe that the downturn in Hamas’s fortunes will be translated into it being more amenable to peace or a genuine chance that it will loosen its hold on power.

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Even optimists about the new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks acknowledge that the Hamas problem makes it difficult to imagine an actual agreement coming out of the negotiations. So long as Gaza is ruled by Hamas and Hamas is unwilling to recognize Israel’s existence, let alone its legitimacy, how could any accord survive? But some are seeking to downplay this all-too-obvious flaw in Secretary of State John Kerry’s reasoning in making his diplomatic push by arguing that the Islamist rulers of Gaza (which contains 40 percent of the Arab population of the disputed territories) are either weak or about to fall.

The glass-half-full peace process scenario seems to rest on the assumption that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas will get a major boost in popularity if he is able to win, with the help of American pressure, an Israeli withdrawal and an independent state. The hope is that this will render Hamas’s opposition ineffective. An even more wildly optimistic scenario goes so far as to envisage Hamas falling from power or becoming so weak that talk of a merger with Fatah becomes a reality, thus ending the Palestinian schism and easing the way to peace.

Unfortunately, this sort of optimism tells us more about the desire on the part of some in both the United States and Israel to ignore the reality of Palestinian politics than it does about the possibility of regime change in Gaza. For example, even if we take all the assertions in veteran Israeli journalist and author Ehud Yaari’s analysis of the situation in Gaza in the New Republic at face value, there is very little reason to believe that the downturn in Hamas’s fortunes will be translated into it being more amenable to peace or a genuine chance that it will loosen its hold on power.

Yaari is right when he asserts this isn’t the best of times for the Hamas regime. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt is a body blow to the Palestinian group that traces its own origins back to that organization. Though relations with the recently toppled Morsi government were not always smooth, his military successors are openly hostile to Hamas. They have not only shut down the border with Gaza and closed many smuggling tunnels, they have publicly charged Hamas with providing assistance to Brotherhood efforts to subvert the new regime as well as implicating it in violence and murders associated with Morsi’s escape from a Mubarak regime jail in 2011. This has not only deepened its isolation but shut down a vital source of funds.

While significant in and of itself, the loss of Egypt is all the more devastating to Hamas because of its decision to part ways with Iran in the last year. Siding with the Syrian rebels and discarding its formerly close ties with Tehran may have made sense in 2012 for a Hamas that thought it could count on both Egypt and Turkey. Iran was once Hamas’s primary source of both funding and weapons, but the Islamists thought they were better off sticking with the Sunnis against the Shiites. But the ability of the Assad regime to hold onto power in Damascus with the aid of Iran and Hezbollah is making it look as if they backed the wrong horse. With the Turks and the Gulf states that have pledged money to keep Hamas afloat primarily interested in the Syrian struggle these days, Gaza now finds itself more isolated than ever. That has also accentuated the split in the Hamas high command that has always existed between the Gaza leadership and its political bureau abroad.

All this has also strengthened the heretofore-marginal Islamic Jihad terror group that now represents itself as the true face of Palestinian resistance instead of a Hamas that is seen by some radicals as at fault for seeking to preserve the current cease-fire with Israel. As the New York Times reports today, Iran’s increased funding of the group in the wake of its dispute with Hamas over Syria has raised its profile and its ability to compete with the bigger terror group for popularity in Gaza.

But however serious these problems may be, they do not at present constitute anything that comes even close to a mortal threat to Hamas. The group’s iron grip on Gazan society remains undiminished. Though it is broke, even in times of plenty it has always depended on UNRWA, the United Nations agency devoted to aiding and perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem, to take care of the strip’s poor.

Moreover, Hamas officials are as capable of seeing which way the wind is blowing in the Middle East as anyone else and have launched diplomatic initiatives to get back into Tehran’s good graces. Though these efforts have, as yet, yielded no concrete results, should they deem it necessary, there is little doubt that Hamas will bend to Iran’s will in order to keep themselves afloat.

Moreover, the expectation that the peace talks will sink Hamas’s standing among Palestinians has it backwards. Should the negotiations succeed, Hamas will be well placed to blast Abbas for betraying the refugees and Palestinian hopes of destroying Israel. Should they fail, they will assail him for groveling to the Jews and America. Either way, they are set up to make political hay and mayhem from Kerry’s folly.

The fantasy of Hamas fading away is just that. In spite of its serious problems, the Islamist group is in no imminent danger. The same can’t be said of its Palestinian rivals and no amount of optimism about the talks can change that.

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The Sputtering Arab Spring

It is not just in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt that the Arab Spring has taken an ominous turn. So too in the North African cradle of the movement.

In Tunisia protests continue after the murder of socialist and secularist politician Mohamed Brahmi, a key opponent of the ruling Ennahda party, an Islamist group.

In Libya another secularist politician–Abdul-Salam al-Musmari, one of the leaders of the movement to topple Muammar Gaddafi–has been murdered in an attack blamed on Islamists. His supporters, too, are up in arms.

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It is not just in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt that the Arab Spring has taken an ominous turn. So too in the North African cradle of the movement.

In Tunisia protests continue after the murder of socialist and secularist politician Mohamed Brahmi, a key opponent of the ruling Ennahda party, an Islamist group.

In Libya another secularist politician–Abdul-Salam al-Musmari, one of the leaders of the movement to topple Muammar Gaddafi–has been murdered in an attack blamed on Islamists. His supporters, too, are up in arms.

This can be seen as part of the same struggle now playing out in Egypt and Syria between Islamists and their more secular adversaries. The United States has an obvious stake in the outcome–we don’t want to see a Middle East dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, although we also don’t want to see repressive military regimes that drive their population into terrorism.

This is why it’s vitally important–as Michael Doran and I argued in Foreign Policy magazine–to develop our capacity for waging political warfare, as we did in the early days of the Cold War, when the U.S. helped various anti-Communist forces. Today we should be helping anti-Islamist forces. Instead, because we have let our capacity for political warfare atrophy, we are forced to either send F-16s and Predators to push regime change (as in Libya in 2011) or sit by ineffectually (as in much of the Middle East ever since).

There needs to be a better way–the U.S. needs to be able to overtly and covertly support more moderate and secular forces in the battle over the future of countries such as Libya and Tunisia, where there is an excellent chance of a decent and democratic outcome. Instead the widespread perception is of American retreat, leaving our natural allies at the mercy of radicals.

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