I’ve seen a lot of criticism of President Obama’s statement this morning on Egypt. Honestly, I’m not exactly sure what people expected him to say.
Was he supposed to declare, “Great job, Egyptian military, keep killing hundreds of people”? I don’t American presidents say things like that, or that it would be a particularly good idea.
Instead, the president took a measured approach that gave absolutely nothing to the Muslim Brotherhood – whose return to power is unacceptable for the United States – but that put the Egyptian military on notice that they need to cool it. Here is the key passage:
While Mohamed Morsi was elected President in a democratic election, his government was not inclusive and did not respect the views of all Egyptians. We know that many Egyptians, millions of Egyptians, perhaps even a majority of Egyptians were calling for a change in course. And while we do not believe that force is the way to resolve political differences, after the military’s intervention several weeks ago, there remained a chance for reconciliation and an opportunity to pursue a democratic path.
Instead, we’ve seen a more dangerous path taken through arbitrary arrests, a broad crackdown on Mr. Morsi’s associations and supporters, and now tragically the violence that’s taken the lives of hundreds of people and wounded thousands more.
The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt’s interim government and security forces. We deplore violence against civilians. We support universal rights essential to human dignity, including the right to peaceful protest. We oppose the pursuit of martial law, which denies those rights to citizens under the principle that security trumps individual freedom, or that might makes right. And today the United States extends its condolences to the families of those who were killed and those who were wounded.
And given the depths of our partnership with Egypt, our national security interests in this pivotal part of the world and our belief that engagement can support a transition back to a democratically elected civilian government, we’ve sustained our commitment to Egypt and its people. But while we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back.
As a result, this morning we notified the Egyptian government that we are canceling our biannual joint military exercise which was scheduled for next month. Going forward I’ve asked my national security team to assess the implications of the actions taken by the interim government and further steps that we may take as necessary with respect to the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.
Notice Obama correctly cites “our national security interests in this pivotal part of the world” to justify his decision to essentially do nothing. Canceling a military exercise? Be serious.
He says if the slaughter continues we might do something – cut off aid. But for now, Obama recognizes that the only option really is to continue supporting the military, because there is nothing good that will fill the power vacuum if they leave the stage. While he knows that we can’t condone mass killings, he essentially is not taking strong action to stop it either.
As hard as this is to say, with hundreds and even thousands dying, I really don’t think anyone outside of Egypt can easily judge what the military is doing. Surely, the Muslin Brotherhood would eventually kill and repress even more people if allowed to regain power. Can Egypt survive with an active and officially tolerated Muslim Brotherhood, or does the group need to truly be repressed so it can’t do damage? Islamists are not democrats. They can’t really be introduced into a democratic process, as they demonstrated.
I really don’t think we know well enough the answers to these questions to second-guess the Egyptian military, as galling as the crackdown is. The world is full of examples – Russia, Iran, and China come to mind – where the failure of an unsavory regime to root out extremist opponents resulted in a far worse cataclysm and millions of deaths, not hundreds.
Maybe Egypt’s generals can be convinced that they’ll still get the result they are seeking if they tone it down. That’s what Obama was suggesting, I think.
He may be sending “mixed signals” that could encourage the Brotherhood, as some have said, but I don’t think Obama had any choice as the moral leader of our nation but to condemn this kind of violence. On the other hand, he didn’t do much about it. Which perhaps explains his final, correct thought:
America cannot determine the future of Egypt. That’s a task for the Egyptian people.
This is not to justify Obama’s past vacillations and incompetencies with respect to his policy toward Egypt and the rest of the Middle East. But given the cards he is holding, it was the best he could do.