Tuesday, August 20, 2013

America on Egypt: An Attitude or a Policy

Meanwhile, back in Egypt, the battle lines are being drawn. On the one side the Muslim Brotherhood, Lindsey Graham, John McCain, Rand Paul and the Obama administration. On the other side, the Egyptian military, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

The Wall Street Journal reports the divergence this morning:

The U.S.'s closest Middle East allies are undercutting American policy in Egypt, encouraging the military to confront the Muslim Brotherhood rather than reconcile, U.S. and Arab officials said.

Egyptian security forces detained backers of ousted President Mohammed Morsi last week in Cairo.

The parallel efforts by Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have blunted U.S. influence with Egypt's military leadership and underscored how the chaos there has pulled Israel into ever-closer alignment with those Gulf states, officials said.

A senior Israeli official called the anti-Muslim Brotherhood nations "the axis of reason."

The Obama administration first had sought to persuade Egyptian military leader Gen. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi not to overthrow the elected government of President Mohammed Morsi and then to reconcile with his Muslim Brotherhood base.

Gen. Sisi has done the opposite—orchestrating the president's overthrow and a crackdown in which over 900 people have been killed since Wednesday—reflecting his apparent confidence in the Egyptian government's ability to weather an American backlash, U.S. and Arab officials said.

To no one’s surprise, the crack Obama administration foreign policy team misread the situation:

U.S. officials said they underestimated the extent to which the Saudis and the Emirates would double-down in support of the Egyptian military.

Beyond the fact that Secretary of State John Kerry chose to align himself with Interim Vice President Mohammed el-Baradei, thereby losing even more credibility, the administration forgot how its own mistakes helped produce the crisis. As it happens, the Saudis have a longer memory:

In an unprecedented comment this weekend, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah blamed American "ignorance" for the crisis in Egypt. Without mentioning America by name, the king blamed Washington's "interference" in Arab politics for the last two years of turmoil.

In a scathing statement, the king urged Muslims to stand behind the Egyptian Army in fighting terrorism and extremism. Speaking in sorrow, Abdullah blamed outsiders ignorant of Arabism, Islam, and Egypt for senseless interference in the politics of the Arab world's most populous state. Clearly referring to President Obama's decision two years ago to push for Hosni Mubarak's ouster, the king suggested Washington played with fire and has now been burned.

The Saudis were shocked when Obama abandoned Mubarak, a close Saudi ally, in 2011. They saw a dangerous precedent for their own future. Since then the kingdom has been the leader of the counterrevolution in the Arab world, bucking up regimes in Bahrain, Yemen, and Jordan. The Saudis were early supporters of the coup in Cairo and have rallied their Gulf allies, Kuwait and the UAE, to promise $12 billion in aid to the military government that has ousted the Muslim Brotherhood. The UAE issued its own statement this weekend fully backing Abdullah.

This week Hosni Mubarak is going to be released from prison. The Saudis do not abandon their friends.

While the Journal news story suggests that the administration has a policy, Bret Stephens suggests in his column that it is really just copping an “attitude.”

Will it content itself with having the right feeling about what is happening in Egypt or will it develop a policy that put it back in the game?

Stephens explains the distinction:

On the subject of Egypt: Is it the U.S. government's purpose merely to cop an attitude? Or does it also intend to have a policy?

An attitude "deplores the violence" and postpones a military exercise, as President Obama did from Martha's Vineyard the other day. An attitude sternly informs the Egyptian military, as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) did, that it is "taking Egypt down a dark path, one that the United States cannot and should not travel with them." An attitude calls for the suspension of U.S. aid to Egypt, as everyone from Rand Paul (R., Ky.) to Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) has.

An attitude is a gorgeous thing. It is a vanity accountable to a conscience. But an attitude has no answer for what the U.S. does with or about Egypt once the finger has been wagged and the aid withdrawn. When Egypt decides to purchase Su-35s from Russia (financed by Saudi Arabia) and offers itself as another client to Vladimir Putin because the Obama administration has halted deliveries of F-16s, will Mr. Graham wag a second finger at Moscow?

An attitude makes you feel good. It makes you feel virtuous. It makes you feel as though you are on the side of the angels. A policy allows active management of a crisis. It helps you to direct events toward the best outcome. To cop an attitude you can stand on the sidelines or in the audience and watch the play unfold. To conduct a policy you have to be actively engaged.

Stephens defines a policy as:

…  a set of pragmatic choices between unpalatable alternatives designed to achieve the most desirable realistic result. What is realistic and desirable?

In copping an attitude, America has offered several recommendations to the Egyptian military.

Stephens evaluates them:

Releasing deposed President Mohammed Morsi and other detained Brotherhood leaders may be realistic, but it is not desirable—unless you think Aleksandr Kerensky was smart to release the imprisoned Bolsheviks after their abortive July 1917 uprising.

Restoring the dictatorship-in-the-making that was Mr. Morsi's elected government is neither desirable nor realistic—at least if the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets in June and July to demand his ouster have anything to do with it.

Bringing the Brotherhood into some kind of inclusive coalition government in which it accepts a reduced political role in exchange for calling off its sit-ins and demonstrations may be desirable, but it is about as realistic as getting a mongoose and a cobra to work together for the good of the mice.

These are wishful thinking, pie-in-the-sky solutions. None is going to happen. We do not have the leverage to make them happen.

What is the most desirable sequence of events? Stephens answers:

What's realistic and desirable is for the military to succeed in its confrontation with the Brotherhood as quickly and convincingly as possible. Victory permits magnanimity. It gives ordinary Egyptians the opportunity to return to normal life. It deters potential political and military challenges. It allows the appointed civilian government to assume a prominent political role. It settles the diplomatic landscape. It lets the neighbors know what's what.

It’s time to get out of our dream world and into the real world. By copping an attitude we are saying that we have attained to a superior state of consciousness, one that absolves us of responsibility. 

Stephens concludes:

It would be nice to live in a world in which we could conduct a foreign policy that aims at the realization of our dreams—peace in the Holy Land, a world without nuclear weapons, liberal democracy in the Arab world. A better foreign policy would be conducted to keep our nightmares at bay: stopping Iran's nuclear bid, preventing Syria's chemical weapons from falling into terrorist hands, and keeping the Brotherhood out of power in Egypt. But that would require an administration that knew the difference between an attitude and a policy.


Lastango said...

"What's realistic and desirable is for the military to succeed in its confrontation with the Brotherhood as quickly and convincingly as possible."

Quite so. "Convincingly" means crushing the Brotherhood by eradicating the organization -- including detaining its leadership, confiscating the Brotherhood's physical and financial assets, destroying its property, closing its offices, and shutting down its grassroots social programs. (Viable substitutes for some of those programs will need to be put in place.)

It means removing Brotherhood operatives from the key posts they have spent decades infiltrating as part of their long march to power.

It also means ensuring elements dependent on the state (i.e. university professors) are instructed that agitation on behalf of the Brotherhood is unacceptable.

I think the Administration does indeed have a policy: to back and promote the Islamists -- not only in Egypt, but everywhere else. The US is joined with the Europeans in this. Now that their policy is smashing up against the demands of a new realpolitik (the need to curry favor with the Saudis, Egyptian military, etc.), it will be interesting to watch how the Administration postures, straddles, and triangulates.

No doubt the Administration was encouraged by the American public's disinterest in Benghazi. The Administration (aided by Washington Republicans) was able to wholly escape the obligation to take any retaliatory action whatever, or even to examine and explain its conduct before and during the overthrow of Libya's government and the ensuing debacle. Due to the open warfare in Egypt, there won't be any such luck this time. That presents the Administration with a new, wholly political challenge: how to temporize until the situation becomes the next American president's problem.

I'm guessing the first practical step the Administration will take to mend fences with established power-interests like the Saudis will be to increase (not reduce) aid to Egypt, but to publicly earmark it as strictly for humanitarian purposes. Much flying in & out of Arab capital cities, foreign dignitaries visiting the White House, and other forms of diplomatic theater will ensue as the State Department tries to conjure the image that American is still playing a key role in the Mideast.

Sam L. said...

Teh MBs have a document descibing their policies; democracy is not one of them. Tolerance of/for others, likewise.

Dennis said...

"What's realistic and desirable is for the military to succeed in its confrontation with the Brotherhood as quickly and convincingly as possible. Victory permits magnanimity. It gives ordinary Egyptians the opportunity to return to normal life. It deters potential political and military challenges. It allows the appointed civilian government to assume a prominent political role. It settles the diplomatic landscape. It lets the neighbors know what's what."
If one pays the slightest attention to history one begins to notice that wars will continue until someone wins decisively. Much of the above paragraph states the reasons why this is so.
Now I don't expect a "community organizer" like Obama to understand this because much of his experience is creating agitation and division and not solving problems. Much like the Saudis he is a fire starter.
It is why Obama creates one disaster after another and then blames others or runs away from his very actions. Whether it is foreign or domestic one can almost always note the disasters that follow. The typical progressive never seems to ask "What is this ultimately going to result in after the fire dies out?
I suspect what we need right now is a reevaluation of what compassion is and what it is not. I would suggest that our current definition of compassion has killed far more people than almost any other action we have taken.
The interesting thing here is that the prime funder of terrorism in the world now is one of the prime funders of destroying the very same people. A bit of irony and a lesson of what happens when one starts fires and thinks they won't get burnt.
Another aside is that Obama's blundering may create the very conditions to bring the Israel and many in the Middle East together because of fear of Obama's friends the Muslim Brotherhood.
It is indeed a strange world.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for having this article available. I agree with Stephens more than the Dems, but he changes his mind in a way Presidents don't get to.