President Obama has quite a problem with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. At the State Department briefing Thursday afternoon, deputy press secretary Mark Toner danced around repeated questions about Obama’s effectiveness in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood chief. If Obama is talking to Morsi, is Morsi listening and trying to bring Hamas to heel? It sure doesn’t seem so from Morsi’s public statements and his prime minister’s trip to Gaza to show support for Hamas.
The back-and-forth at Foggy Bottom went like this:
QUESTION: -- do you think that Egypt is going to do the right thing here, or do you have the sense that they’re going to? What was the response from the Egyptians? It’s --
MR. TONER: Well, I --
QUESTION: Because publicly, their response doesn’t seem to be very consistent with what you’re asking of them.
MR. TONER: I think – and in fact, the White House has issued in a readout of the President’s calls yesterday – both we and the Egyptians agree there needs to be a de-escalation, and we urged the Government of Egypt to take steps to support that kind of de-escalation.
QUESTION: Such as?
MR. TONER: Well, obviously, using their influence in the region. But we want to see, obviously, a de-escalation of the violence. We need to see the violence to -stop. We need to see Hamas stop its rocket attacks on Israel so we can end the violence.
QUESTION: Okay. And the other day, I asked you whether or not the United States spoke to – or not spoke to, but had messages delivered to Hamas to knock it off, if you’ve used Egypt or Qatar, particularly since their Emir just visited Gaza, to send a message to Hamas that these rocket attacks have to stop whether or not they are actually firing them or not. I was told and – or I was led to believe that the answer is no, that you don’t pass any messages on to Hamas through third parties; you don’t talk to them yourselves. And I’m curious; is that correct? And if it is, why? Why not?
MR. TONER: I’m not sure – again, I’m not sure – you’re talking about what I told you in terms --
MR. TONER: -- of my response? Okay. I think what I said was that – at the time was we certainly do convey our concerns, certainly to Egypt as a regional leader, as someone who has influence in the region. We convey our concerns and we consult closely on them whenever there’s this kind of outbreak of violence.
QUESTION: Yeah, but do you tell the Egyptians or the Qataris or other people or other countries --
MR. TONER: And I’m not going to get into the substance of our phone calls --
QUESTION: No, no, no, no.
MR. TONER: -- or our conversations with them, other than to say that we’re obviously consulting closely with them. We value their input on the security in the region.
QUESTION: Well, but the question is do you tell them to tell Hamas – do you tell people who have contacts with Hamas, since you don’t have any contacts with them, to cut it out?
MR. TONER: And I think I --
QUESTION: I mean, you go on the record all the time --
MR. TONER: I think I answered your question to say that, certainly, we ask Egypt to use its influence in the region to help de-escalate the situation. I’ll leave it there.
QUESTION: All right. Well, why is it that you’re willing to say, “use influence in the region” but you’re not willing to say “with Hamas?”
MR. TONER: Because I – because that’s what I decided to say.
You get the drift. It looks like Morsi is egging Hamas on and snubbing the president. A senior Republican adviser on Capitol Hill put it this way: “Right now Egypt is providing political support to a terrorist organization. If that turns to material support of any kind, Egypt risks designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.”
Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies is likewise perturbed. He told me Thursday night: “The Morsi government should be on the hot seat right now. Egypt, along with Turkey and Qatar — all ostensible U.S. allies — have been working assiduously to rehabilitate Hamas and integrate the Gaza-based terrorist group into the new Arab regional order. This was probably acceptable to the Obama administration as long as there was calm. Now, Egypt will have to own up to this policy. Morsi announced that he was dispatching his prime minister to Gaza, but it’s unclear whether this is a solidarity mission for Hamas or an attempt to broker calm.” He added, “How this plays out will undoubtedly impact US-Egypt ties for the foreseeable future. To say the least, this episode demonstrates how important Mubarak was to maintaining order in the region.”
We can hope that the president is reading Morsi the riot act in private, letting it be known that the Hamas missiles better not have come from Egypt and using U.S. aid for leverage with the Muslim Brotherhood leader. But even if the president is doing the right thing, there’s no sign so far that Morsi is paying attention.
This raises the question as to what our Egypt policy is (do we even have one?) and whether we are being clear-eyed about the Muslim Brotherhood government. Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute keenly observes, “There are a lot of lessons to be learned from Libya. One of the first is don’t turn your back on the Middle East. The United States can have a real and a good influence if we don’t lie about our priorities or about the problems we see arising. If we pretend everything is perfect with an Egypt that is repressing Christians, narrowing women’s rights and abandoning its obligations, we can be sure they’ll double down.” She argues: “ It’s time to let Egypt know that the relationship with the United States is predicated improvement in all those areas, and more. And it would be wise for Morsi to remember who needs whom in this relationship.”
Finally, we should not lose track of the fact that while this is ostensibly an Israel-Hamas-Egypt issue, the real culprits are in Tehran. Iran is the principal supporter of money and weapons to Hamas. Hamas terrorists train in Iran (and in its junior partner, Syria). In sum, Hamas is Iran’s proxy in Israel. Israel can keep swatting down Hamas, using air power or, if need be, going into Gaza on land. It has a solemn obligation to defend itself against what was a deliberate escalation by Hamas in the number and quality of weapons launched against Israel’s civilian population. But even with the most robust U.S. support this is not a long-term solution. That will only come when Iran is dealt with, either militarily or via regime change.
Hamas’s increased aggressiveness should properly be seen as part of a pattern of Iran’s increased aggressiveness. In accelerating its weapons program, targeting a Saudi ambassador for assassination on U.S. soil and facilitating terrorist groups, it is flexing its muscles, meeting little resistance when it provokes the West again and again. It should be apparent that U.S. sanctions have not sent Iran into a defensive crouch. Far from it. In this context, it is preposterous to expect that a verifiable, effective agreement to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program could be reached with the mullahs.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, we learned from the Wikileaks documents, repeatedly urged the United States to stop messing around with Iran’s proxies and instead to “cut off the head of the snake” in Tehran. That (i.e. a military strike) or regime collapse/change are the only real hope for a permanent end to, among other things, Hamas’s reign of terror.