Opinion writer

Events in Egypt have gone from bad to worse.

The Post reports on the latest regarding Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi:

Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, delivered a defiant televised speech Tuesday night that made it clear he would not cede power. Waving his hands and shaking his fists, he swore that he was committed to the process that led to the historic elections last year and said that any attempts to subvert the constitution were “unacceptable.”

The army, in turn, posted a message to its Facebook page saying: “We swear to God that we will sacrifice even our blood for Egypt and its people, to defend them against any terrorist, radical or fool.”

We are, it seems, heading for a tense showdown.

Morsi is daring the military to act, claiming he is the only leader legitimately elected. The crowds say he’s become a lawless tyrant, an oppressor in the mold of Hosni Mubarak. The army meanwhile wants order but hesitates before plunging the country into civil war.

The best-case solution — agreement to hold early elections, repeal of Morsi’s objectionable decrees — isn’t ideal. The rule of the mob is not something to wish for and there is every possibility that in a new election Islamists will still come out ahead. We should be pleased by the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood, but it is in our interests — and that of our allies — to makes sure Egypt succeeds. Success should be modestly defined at this point — stable, some respect for civil liberties and minorities, and adherence to its treaties.

U.S. should make clear that any government that emerges must meet these minimum qualifications to enjoy our support.

The administration would have us believe it has pushed Egypt’s rulers (first Hosni Mubarak, then Morsi) to reform, but as Eli Lake and Josh Rogin document, he actually hasn’t used U.S. leverage to move Egypt in that direction. It repeated its faulty handling of Mubarak when Morsi came along:

In nearly every confrontation with Congress since the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the White House has fought restrictions proposed by legislators on the nearly $1.6 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt. Twice in two years, the White House and the State Department fought hard against the very sorts of conditions for aid that Obama claimed credit for this week. When President Mohamed Morsi used the power of his presidency to target his political opponents, senior administration officials declined to criticize him in public. Many close Egypt observers argue that the Obama administration’s treatment of Morsi has been in line with the longstanding U.S. policy of turning a blind eye to the human-rights abuses of his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.

The  administration talks a good game but has shown little patience for wielding the same soft power it touts as the key to our international success. (Lake and Rogin quote Elliott Abrams: “There was no human-rights pressure on Mubarak. . . . Then Mubarak falls, and Morsi takes over. They treated Morsi more or less the way they treated Mubarak. They really failed to criticize him ever in public.”)

As with most of his foreign policy, the president exhibits only sporadic interest, hoping the United States can recede. But it can’t without leaving a vacuum into which disagreeable players and violence surge, so his policy is a series of belated, reactionary steps that are ineffective and only serve to cement the image of the United States as a feckless power in retreat.