I wrote earlier today about the way Vice President Biden seemed to take the United States half a step closer to an eventual confrontation with Iran in his speech to the annual AIPAC conference. Also noteworthy was the absence of any criticism of Israel’s presence in the West Bank or settlements. Biden extolled the two-state solution for the conflict with the Palestinians, but as has been the case with the Obama administration since the start of the 2012 presidential campaign, there was an effort to steer clear of any real argument with Israel and its supporters on the peace process. But as much as Biden seemed anxious to agree with the pro-Israel community on a host of issues, such as isolating Hezbollah and treating it as a terrorist organization, there was one point of real disagreement with many of the Jewish state’s supporters.
While surveying the Middle East and denouncing threats to Israel, Biden insisted that the Obama administration’s embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt was not the mistake that many critics have claimed:
We’re not looking at what’s happening in Egypt through rose-colored glasses. Again, our eyes are wide open. We have no illusions about the challenges that we face, but we also know this: There’s no legitimate alternative at this point to engagement.
Only through engagement — it’s only through engagement with Egypt that we can focus Egypt’s leaders on the need to repair international obligations — respect their international obligations, including and especially its peace treaty with Israel. It’s only through active engagement that we can help ensure that Hamas does not re-arm through the Sinai and put the people of Israel at risk. It’s only through engagement that we can concentrate Egypt’s government on the imperative of confronting the extremists. And it’s only through engagement that we can encourage Egypt’s leaders to make reforms that will spark economic growth and stabilize the democratic process. And it’s all tough, and there’s no certainty.
While the concerns that Biden raises about the possibility that the Morsi government will break the treaty with Israel are real, his insistence that there are no alternatives to coddling the Brotherhood with arms sales and a virtual blank check to continue its quest for total power in Egypt is wrong. So, too, is his belief that making nice with the Islamists is altering their behavior.
I have always thought those who blamed the Obama administration for the fall of the Mubarak regime were giving it too much credit. Mubarak was on his way out no matter what Washington did. But the administration does bear a good deal of the blame for the way that the Brotherhood has risen to power since then. The president had no scruples about using the leverage provided by the more than $1 billion in U.S. aid that Egypt gets annually to force the army to accede to a Brotherhood government. But when offered the opportunity to use that same influence to stop the Brotherhood from seeking to eliminate any checks on that power from either the judiciary or the military, he has refused to do so.
Without a demonstrated willingness to cut off aid to the Morsi government or to cancel arms shipments, the engagement policy that Biden defended is just talk–and the Brotherhood has shown in the last year it considers American talk to be very cheap indeed.
The notion that Morsi can be encouraged to confront “extremists,” as Biden claims, is itself an absurdity. While there are groups that are even more extreme than Morsi and the Brotherhood, they are extreme enough to present a clear threat not only to secular Egyptians but also to regional stability and American interests. It’s all well and good for Biden to say that the administration isn’t wearing rose-colored glasses, but a policy that is based on the notion that the Brotherhood is a moderate organization or that it can be trusted not to impose Sharia-style law on Egyptian society or to move away from a cold yet working relationship with Israel is the one that is not realistic.
Those Egyptians, including the non-Islamists in the military, are waiting for America to show some sign that it is not willing to continue subsidizing the Brotherhood. If Morsi has not already broken the treaty with Israel, it is not because of Obama’s engagement but because he knows a return to war or warlike conditions is unsustainable given his country’s weakness. But the longer he stays in power with America’s approval, the more likely it is that he will grow bolder and the result will be bad for Egyptians and the United States.
The rabid anti-Semite at the head of the Cairo government isn’t interested in the administration’s concerns. So long as the money keeps coming and the U.S. is not actively seeking to encourage the opposition to the Islamist movement, they know they have nothing to fear. Obama’s engagement with Morsi is no more likely to succeed than the similarly named policy he tried with the Islamist leaders of Iran.
While the vice president tried to portray the current policy toward Egypt as pragmatic, it is actually a path to further problems and violence. Time is running out for the U.S. to start trying to remedy a situation in Cairo that is rapidly moving past the point of no return. Any more American engagement with Morsi will put an end to any hope for progress in Egypt or for retrieving the U.S. influence that Obama has already lost.