You would think that after wasting the first year in office on a foolish attempt to “engage” Iran, Barack Obama would have had his fill of outreach to Islamists. After the Iranians treated his overtures with contempt, even Obama eventually got the picture and switched to an equally ineffective course of feckless diplomacy aimed at isolating Tehran. But apparently the president’s unfulfilled desire to make friends with Islamic extremists is still driving American foreign policy. As the New York Times reported yesterday, the administration has embarked on a full-scale effort to “engage” with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
This is, to say the least, a major reversal of a decades-long American policy to treat the Islamists as a threat to the stability of the region as well as to the U.S.-Egypt relationship. But like New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who embarrassed himself trying to portray the Brotherhood as moderates in a series of columns, the State Department is seemingly convinced it can establish a productive working relationship with it. This is a glaring mistake not just because it is based on a misperception of the Islamists’ goals regarding democracy and willingness to keep the peace with Israel. It is also a slap in the face of the country’s military government that remains the only obstacle between the Brotherhood and the creation of another Islamic republic.
The argument in favor of engagement is based on the notion that the Brotherhood is a fact of life and, as the parliamentary elections have shown, clearly the most popular political force in Egypt. However, that doesn’t mean its intentions are compatible with the creation of a freer and more democratic Egypt, let alone U.S. interests. The ideology of the Brotherhood, like that of the more radical Salafis who also came out ahead in the elections, is still geared toward the creation of an Islamic state and, notwithstanding the credulous reporting of writers like Kristof, the end of minority religious rights and any vestige of freedom in Egypt.
The administration’s anger with the Egyptian military is understandable as its ham-handed attempt to repress dissent and to retain its hold on power have undermined any pretense the Arab Spring will lead to genuine freedom there. But if the only choices available in Egypt are the Islamists and the military, you have to wonder about the judgment of a president who would choose the former. While administration sources say they want to keep communication open with both sides, any attempt to undermine the military at this point constitutes a clear intervention on behalf of the Brotherhood.
Comparisons of American policy toward Egypt with the Carter administration’s foolish support of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s push to oust the Shah from Iran have been largely unfair. The Mubarak government’s fall was inevitable, and nothing Obama did or didn’t do affected the outcome there. But engagement with the Brotherhood at this moment is a ghastly error on the scale of Carter’s Iran mistakes. Americans may well be looking back on this decision with regret for many years to come.