How Obama Got It Wrong in Egypt

How Obama Got It Wrong in Egypt

President Obama has just made a fateful choice in Egypt. He has chosen a side in the violent confrontation between supporters of the nation’s first elected president and the army generals who deposed him in a coup six weeks ago. And he has chosen wrongly. The price of this error will be high.

It was “a really, really tough choice,” administration officials want us to know. Obama “is between a rock and a hard place,” Democratic congressmen tell us on the Sunday talk shows. The decision to continue backing Egypt’s military and security forces in the face of their continuing slaughter of Egyptians in Cairo and elsewhere did come with its complexities.

In his remarks on Thursday, a day after the violence began, the president canceled joint military maneuvers scheduled for next month in the Mediterranean, but he did not even mention the $1.5 billion Washington gives Egypt’s military annually, which is the bedrock of the relationship. Translation: There will be no substantive change in U.S. policy in response to the savage acts of a longstanding client.

It is the wrong message. It underscores all too plainly that the U.S. has failed to grasp the fundamentally new environment that the Arab Spring announced two years ago. Left uncorrected, this will prove the president’s pact with the devil. Supporting the generals is not the road to what the U.S. wants in the region: political stability, security of resource supplies, a prosperity in which markets will germinate.

The Morsi supporters are no saints, either.  Al Jazeera reports that more than 30 Christian churches have been destroyed in a series of continuing attacks on Christian homes, schools, shops and churches.

To be fair, it is not at all clear that any other administration, Republican or Democrat, would steer American policy even a mite more imaginatively than Obama and his key advisors—Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The calculations Obama made are these, in order of importance:

  • U.S. influence. The administration is now bemoaning its lack of influence over Egypt’s generals and coup leaders, and the U.S. media are thick with the thought. This is a dodge, a deception. Washington has been intimately involved in events in Egypt long, long before President Mohamed Morsi was deposed six weeks ago; Rice communicated Obama’s approval of the coup in the hours before it took place. U.S. influence—in Egypt and across the Arab world—is precisely what is at stake in the current crisis. The 2012 election of Morsi, an Islamist, signaled that this influence, predominant in the region since the early postwar years, was to modulate.
  • Israel. Morsi is now a captive of the Egyptian army, but he is hostage to U.S. support for Israel. We have to think historically. The $1.5 billion in military aid that Obama declined to cut off this past week was a bribe offered at Camp David in 1978, when Anwar el–Sadat, the U.S.–backed dictator at the time, signed a peace pact with Israel. This secured the army’s political dominance over Islamists and kept the border between the Sinai Peninsula and Israel clear of anti–Israeli militias. The bucks are not all that is at issue. The signal the bucks send would be cheap at twice the price.
  • Suez Canal and overflights. Agility and speed are high values for the combined forces the U.S. maintains in the Middle East. Privileges granted the American military are essential to Washington’s capacity to respond to contingencies. American ships enjoy priority at the Suez Canal; American planes can enter and exit Egyptian airspace more or less at will. Another military regime will maintain these arrangements, of course, but Morsi never threatened to disturb them, it is worth noting. The difference is that he may have if the U.S. ever acted against the interests of democratic movements or governments in the region, and this is well within the bounds of possibility, as we have just seen.
  • Foreign investment and tourism. Foreign capital and foreign visitors are keys to any sustained resuscitation of the Egyptian economy, which tanked long ago and, for understandable reasons, did not thrive in the first year of a fundamental political renovation. They are proportionately of little consequence to the U.S. economy.American investments (including financial institutions but not securities) total about $2 billion. At the moment, numerous U.S. multinational corporations have shut down their Egyptian operations, and hotel rooms in Cairo are going very cheaply.

These are the reckonings that led the Obama administration to stand with Abdul-Fattah el–Sisi, who is poised to take his place in the line of succession leading from Sadat through Hosni Mubarak. Maintain an extensive reach in the region, protect Israel from animosities in the Arab world, sacrifice no military privileges, and guard U.S. commercial interests: That is the program.

It is flawed thinking. It is mistaken tactics and shallow, uninformed strategy.

Consider the question of influence. It is easy enough to buy it from dictators and generals, as Washington so often has. But this is yesterday’s method. We want influence in the emerging Arab world, tomorrow’s Middle East. This means working with leaders precisely of Morsi’s sort, even as we recognize their political immaturities.

Or consider Obama’s response to the coup against Morsi, and its aftermath. He was positively militant Thursday, when he condemned the week’s massacres. This merely underscores his implicit support for the coup itself, after which he spoke in the mildest tones. Egyptians are not fooled, even if many Americans may be. The message conveyed is that U.S. priorities have not altered since either the Cold War or the Arab Spring. The coup went well, Obama may as well have said, but they overdid it with the bullets and blood.

The economic question is worth mentioning, too. Morsi was not a Deng Xiaoping or a Konrad Adenauer, fair enough. But both tourism and foreign investment are vastly more vulnerable to sudden instability under military rule than under a civilian president and a code of law. In the end, concertina wire and armed guards in olive green are not good for either production or business.

The underlying mistake comes to a failure of vision, and that emerges as bad strategy. We are on the wrong side of the Arab Spring because our judgments are unrelated to principle. Ordinary Egyptians are wary of the U.S. for perfectly logical reasons. Americans have to regain the trust of Middle Eastern peoples, and this means acting, plainly and visibly, according to our own ideals. Interests are fine, everyone has them. But Obama’s really, really tough choice came out really, really wrong because he actually acted against U.S. interests, not in their favor.

At this point the Obama administration’s foreign policy looks like a daily improvisation dependent on the diplomatic equivalent of spit and baling wire. Opportunities come, go, and never come back. The president missed one when he failed to condemn the coup and act on behalf of democratic Egyptians and their government. Now he can regain lost ground by cutting off the Egyptian army’s allowance and taking responsibility for what America does, never mind the complaining about lost leverage.

Footnote: U.S. media have tirelessly promoted the thought that Egyptians favored the coup against Morsi. Phrases such as “millions and millions of Egyptians” and “many Egyptians” are all over the place and mean nothing. We now have a figure. It comes from Amr Darrag, a minister in the Morsi government, who cited a poll in an opinion piece published in The New York Times. It turns out that 69 percent of Egyptians opposed the army action. We cannot be surprised, given Morsi commanded a wide margin in the vote.