Losing our bearings on Egypt

Barack Obama, Chuck Hagel, John Brennan

President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Yesterday, I wrote critically in response to Wall Street Journal opinion board member Bret Stephens’s suggestion that we should give equipment to the Egyptian military to facilitate its savage attacks on unarmed citizens. Since then, we’ve been told the administration didn’t secretly end aid; it secretly “suspended” aid. Got it.

Today, former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams, writing in the Wall Street Journal, makes the case that cutting off aid to the Egyptian army during its rampage is necessary not “merely” morally but also strategically. He argues:

The first mistake the Obama administration made was not instantly suspending aid when the coup occurred in July. . . . The White House’s refusal to enforce this statute has undercut U.S. influence in Egypt, not enhanced it. Had we stuck to our laws and principles, it would have signaled to Gen. Sisi and the Egyptians that we have a few of both.

Those who oppose a suspension of aid conjure up a parade of horribles. First, they say, we’ll lose all influence with the Egyptian military. This is a laughable argument, for it is obvious that we have none.

Nor does he think the Egyptian military is about to cut off its nose to spite its face by abrogating the peace treaty with Israel. They may be vicious authoritarians, but they’re not dumb.

The way to hold true to our values and to retain future relations is not to defend the indefensible nor to accept the Muslim Brotherhood as the only alternative. As Abrams argues, cutting off aid to the military doesn’t amount to ending relations; rather, it “is the only serious way to tell the Egyptian military that its current conduct is beyond the pale.” Moreover, repression against the Islamists didn’t work under former president Hosni Mubarak, and it won’t work under Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. (“Instead, it runs the risk of winning the Islamists some eventual public sympathy and increases the chance of the Muslim Brotherhood returning to the violence and terrorism they abandoned decades ago. The latter appears to be happening already, given recent attacks on police and churches.”) The last thing we need is a bunch of Muslim Brotherhood martyrs.

The zero-sum analysis is wrong. It was wrong when the administration followed it in the form of unalloyed support for former president Mohamed Morsi, and it’s wrong to do it in defense of the army. We lose whatever leverage and standing we might have for a very long time in the region if we become an echo of Russia (which is now assisting Bashar al-Assad in Syria). We don’t have the stomach for it, and our values don’t permit it.

The administration, like its pro-coup critics, seems incapable of imagining a policy that is not black and white. (And they called the Bush administration simple-minded.)  We can, as Abrams urges, make clear that the United States “opposes the Islamists and their return to power, and that it wants to help Egypt achieve order and a path back to civilian rule” (emphasis added). We shouldn’t be stocking the Egyptian armory with weapons designed to fight nonexistent foes; any future aid must be conditional and designed to aid economic and political reform.

In response to the suggestion that we should enable the slaughter of civilians, a prominent conservative foreign policy guru deadpanned, “Everyone seems to have lost their bearings.” Indeed. Too bad we don’t have a competent president, CIA director, secretary of state, defense secretary or national security adviser. And too bad the Senate Republicans chose to rubber stamp the confirmable officials instead of demanding minimally competent people. And if you find all of this horrifying, imagine how badly we’ll handle the end game with Iran.

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