Secretary of State John Kerry gestures during a statement on the situation in Egypt. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press) Secretary of State John Kerry gives a statement on the situation in Egypt. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

We see a plethora of rotten ideas circulating as to what to do about Egypt. Bret Stephens, who usually is attuned to human rights, urges we participate in the government crackdown by “taking steps to help a government the secularists rightly consider an instrument of their salvation. [Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi] may not need shiny new F-16s, but riot gear, tear gas, rubber bullets and Taser guns could help, especially to prevent the kind of bloodbaths the world witnessed last week.” No thank, you.

Aligning ourselves and arming a military that is slaughtering citizens is not in our short- or long-term interest; if we do so, we will rightly earn the enmity of the Egyptian people for decades. (Do we also give supplies to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? To the Chinese?)

Egypt is not, as Stephens asserts, a “zero sum” game in which we either help the Muslim Brotherhood or Sissi, a Nasser-in-the-making. We should be on the side of the Egyptian people, pushing all sides toward a reconciliation with the goal (eventually) of return to democratic rule. In the meantime, we should do everything in our power to end the killing (not speed it up), broker a truce and move the government toward greater protection of civil liberties, minorities and women. The mistake that President Obama made, which Stephens repeats, is to think we have to side with the party in power. Rubbish. We side with liberty and those, even those out of power, who aim to expand it.

There is another troubling point. I have written extensively on Christian persecution in Arab lands. I think the persecution of Christians is an abomination America must oppose. But we should not be viewed as valuing only Christian lives. Rand Paul vows not to let any Christians die in Syria, but the Muslim Syrians who make up the vast majority of the 100,000 dead are our concern, too. (Apparently his famed isolationism ends when it comes to backing Assad’s regime. Not exactly a coherent foreign policy approach.) Others choose to ignore the killing of Egyptian Muslims by the government, focusing solely on the retribution allocated to Coptic Christian. This is despicable; we should deplore killing of all innocents. Our concern for religious minorities cannot be at the expense of slaughtered Muslims.

While isolationists trumpet Egyptian chaos as evidence that no good comes from U.S. influence in the world (the far right and far left merge here in their stony indifference to human atrocities), it is a perfect example of what happens when America withdraws and favors a series of undemocratic leaders simply because they hold power (first Hosni Mubarak, then Mohamed Morsi and now the military). We have not made clear to any party that good relations and continued aid from the United States require a modicum of respect for human rights. Had the Obama administration spent the last four and a half years working, speaking to, facilitating and aiding secular democrats rather than “ending wars” as Obama likes to excuse retrenchment, our influence might be greater, and Egypt might be less bloody.

I say “might” because we should approach this and other crises with humility but not fatalism. We can’t “control” events, but neither can we refuse to steer them. This is both for the good of those who may be aided and for the sake of our moral standing in the world (which is ebbing with each passing week in the Obama administration). That is the definition, I thought, of the “smart diplomacy” Hillary Clinton once promised.

There is an old Jewish joke in which two men are arguing. They turn to a rabbi to resolve the fight. “You’re right,” he says to one. “And you’re right,” he says to the other. The first says, “But we can’t both be right!” The rabbi responds, “And you’re right.” The Egypt debate in the United States is the flip-side of this — there are many people arguing, and most of them are wrong. An unequivocal and forceful policy that puts values, not players, first is needed.

In the words of President Harry S Truman, “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures. I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way. . . . The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms. If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world. And we shall surely endanger the welfare of this nation.”