Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Egyptian Tiananmen

In light of today's horrors in Egypt, Andrew Sullivan, Marc Lynch, and others are now calling for the cutting off of aid to Egypt. While that is the right thing to do now, it is a classic case of too little, too late.

The time to end the aid was after the coup, as the law required. By twisting itself in knots to pretend the coup was not a coup, the Obama administration signaled to the Egyptian generals that it valued its relationship with them more than the democratic process. The military no doubt took that as effectively a green light for today's events.

The administration allowed a simplistic idea of realpolitick to convince it that the worldy-wise way to approach the coup that removed Morsi from power was to finesse the situation. It would maintain its influence with the generals by showing that it had faith in their intentions to restore democracy. Lynch writes:
It seemed prudent to many in Washington to wait and see how things would play out, especially given the intense arguments of those defending what they considered popular revolution. It didn't help that neither the United States nor other outside actors knew quite what they wanted. Few particularly wanted to go to the mat for the Muslim Brotherhood or a Morsy restoration, and Washington quickly understood that this was not in the cards. But they also didn't want a return to military rule.
What Obama should have done instead was use the law requiring an aid cut-off as a way of pressuring the Egyptian military to restore quickly a legitimate government with a popular mandate. Obama would have had the excuse of saying that the coup left him with no options. Secretary of State Kerry then could have quietly made assurances that the aid would be immediately resumed once an elected government was in place.

Such a course would have given the administration actual leverage. Instead, its refusal to call a coup a coup sent precisely the wrong message.

What should have been clear before is now undeniable: when the military acted to remove Morsi from power, it was not acting on the popular will. It was rather exploiting the anti-Morsi protests to do what it wanted to do all along: decapitate the Muslim Brotherhood. By not objecting, the administration implied that it shared that objective. Was it really so odd that the Egyptian generals believed that if they could remove an elected president without consequences, they could also violently disperse protestors?

In academic discussions of American foreign policy, there is a common division between those who argue that U.S. diplomacy should be guided by ideals and those who say it should only serve material interests. In this case, that is a false choice. A stable Egypt, with real respect for democratic process, in which the Muslim Brotherhood has a stake in electoral politics, is in America's interest, but today that result seems sadly unlikely. By taking an allegedly "hard-headed" approach focused purely on interests, the Obama administration has served neither American ideals nor its interests.

As Ethar El Katataney says in the tweet pictured above, "Pandora's Box is wide open. How are we going to close it?"

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