A feckless response to Egypt’s avoidable massacre

By David Rohde
August 15, 2013

Tepid rationalizations that the United States has “limited leverage” in Egypt or that the Arab Spring is “failing” do not change a basic fact: a U.S.-funded “ally” has carried out one of the largest massacres of protesters since the 1989 assault on Tiananmen Square.

It is time for Obama to cut off U.S. aid to Egypt. Ending assistance will not curb the behavior of Egypt’s increasingly autocratic military ruler, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Nor will it ease that country’s political divide or reduce anti-Americanism. But it will say that the United States actually stands for basic international principles.

Wednesday’s killing of 638 people and recent events in the Middle East point to an alarming trend for the Obama White House: Its drone and surveillance-centric approach to counterterrorism is failing. A grim reality is emerging. George W. Bush’s invasion-centric method of countering militancy failed. And so is Obama’s cautious, middle of the road approach.

From massacres in Cairo to prison breaks across the region, the United States is more hated and less secure. At the same time, al Qaeda affiliates are gaining fighters, propaganda victories and recruiting tools.

The message the White House sent to young Islamists in Egypt this week was clear: What jihadists have been telling you about American hypocrisy for years is true. Democratic norms apply to everyone but you. Participating in elections is pointless. Violence is the route to power. Wherever he is hiding in the mountains of Pakistan, Ayman al Zawahiri is likely pleased.

After golfing for five hours on Wednesday and having drinks with a campaign donor, Obama announced on Thursday morning that the United States was cancelling a military exercise with the Egyptian military and immediately went golfing again. There was no announcement that the administration would cut off the $1.3 billion in annual American aid to Egypt, most of it military.

“The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt’s interim government and security forces,” Obama said. “We deplore violence against civilians.”

In a portion of his statement that bordered on lecturing, Obama said it was the responsibility of Egyptian to decide their future. He is correct. But that does not absolve the United States — the Egyptian military’s largest Western backer — from flatly condemning a coup and the killing of hundreds of demonstrators.

The administration must stop trying to be the opposite of the Bush administration. Speaking boldly about core international principals is not the equivalent of invading Iraq. Consistency is vital.

In Egypt, a false equivalence should not be drawn between the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood. Deposed president Mohammed Morsi  was not inclusive and ran the government terribly, but he did not kill hundreds of demonstrators.

The White House deserves credit for dispatching Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns to Cairo to try to strike a compromise. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) recently traveled to Egypt as well. Working with European and Arab diplomats, American officials warned Egypt’s military ruler against a crackdown. So did Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry.

Yet the military carried out the crackdown anyway. My Reuters colleague Paul Taylor reported Wednesday that the Muslim Brotherhood had accepted an international plan to defuse the crisis but the Egyptian military rejected it. As Joshua Hersh of The New Yorker wrote from Cairo Wednesday, this is a “catastrophe of choice” by Egypt’s generals.

It is one thing to be unable to control the police state re-emerging in Egypt. It is another to provide $1.3 billion in aid.

The administration’s response to the killing is an enormous mistake on the global stage. The real issue is not trying to placate Egypt’s generals. It is the perception of the United States among the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims. If Islamist political groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, abide by political norms they should be allowed to participate in politics. Violently repressing them will not work.

Obama’s response to the massacre so far confirms the arguments jihadists have used as a recruiting tool for years. Hard-line militants have long said that a hypocritical Washington obsessively protects the lives of Americans, Europeans and Israelis but largely ignores the deaths of Arabs and Muslims.

Some administration officials may argue that cutting the $1.3 billion in aid would further destabilize Egypt’s economy. But Saudi Arabia and Gulf nations are providing $12 billion in aid to the Egyptian government. Some may argue that continued aid helps Israel. But the re-emergence of a police state will destabilize Egypt, not stabilize it. Some officials may argue that the aid allows us to maintain influence with Egypt’s army. But what influence do we have left?

Meanwhile, in other parts of the region, the administration’s approach to counterterrorism is failing. Prison breaks freed hundreds of jihadists in Iraq, Pakistan and Libya. Yemen is increasingly unstable. The threat of a potential attack prompted the closing of 22 American embassies across the region.

Clearly, the lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan is that sending American troops to any of these countries will only make things worse. But the administration’s detached approach  – so clearly shown by Wednesday’s response — is not working either. Americans exhaustion with the region is understandable. But we must engage with the region, support democratic principles and not pretend that we can walk away.

Drone attacks and global surveillance are not a substitute for consistent long-term support for governments and moderate groups that embrace basic international norms. As I’ve written before, a return to rule by generals and regents is a fantasy. Consistent diplomatic engagement, economic investment and security force training will not quickly stabilize countries or end violence. But it is a vastly better strategic approach than the current one.

History is against Egypt’s generals. It is also against continuing to give them $1.3 billion in American aid.

 

This column was updated on Thursday, August 15th at 4:30pm to reflect the new death toll of 638 released by Egyptian officials.

 

PHOTO (T0p): A supporter of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi shouts slogans as he holds up a picture of Mursi during clashes at Ramses Square in Cairo, July 15, 2013. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

PHOTO (Insert): Supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi run away from tear gas while local residents are seen in the foreground during clashes in central Cairo August 13, 2013.  REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

27 comments

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“. . .the United States is more hated and less secure.”

This has been true, according to several surveys, since partway through his FIRST term.

Posted by Yashmak | Report as abusive

If Obama had a son it would look like Egypt.

Posted by sego | Report as abusive

I watched Rand Paul’s speech against sending aid to Egypt in breach of our laws which say we can’t send money to governments established by coup. Apparently our Senators don’t take our laws or the lives of Egyptians seriously.

Posted by ShiroiKarasu | Report as abusive

“If Islamist political groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, abide by political norms they should be allowed to participate in politics.” Well, yes, and political norms in Egypt means executions of women and others for what we would see as basic human rights. Look, there should be some debate about whether we support Egypt after this recent coup, but if the Muslim Brotherhood wants to be in charge, they need to be fair and effective leaders. Quite honestly I don’t see how they can do that. They are religious fanatics and care no more for life and liberty than our own creepy right wing religious fanatics. You see, part of the method of manipulation used by religious fanatics is keeping people fearful and uneducated. How can that ever be leadership? So, anyway, go ahead and debate the financial support, but you lose all credibility sticking up for the Muslim Brotherhood, or US right wing evangelicals for that matter.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

You seem to ignore the reality that Anne Patterson, fresh from her “inglorious” posting in Islamabad ( I was there in the Presidential Palace on April 6th 2009 when she unveiled that Af-Pak strategy to derision and sneers) had to be moved from Egypt as well because of the deep animosity she engendered “from both sides”… Egypt does not need “$1.5b a year in military aid” from the USA – aging equipment such as the F16 deliveries that were already suspended – and more help to the US based manufacturers than the Egyptian people. Indeed General Al-Sissi should have suspended aid on his own initiative immediately after the departure of the two Senators you laud, their tails between their legs. Like India, Egypt is fully capable of seeking Russian aid in order to develop its own indigenous industry. In the current situation, the path blazed by Sri Lanka President Rajapakse is the model that the General is following – ergo, ignore the foreigners and concentrate on the internal instability which they know best. The one mistake they did make is to try to curry favor with the Foreigners by appointing El Baradei, the expat Pharaoh in waiting with no domestic constituency, as a “Vice President”. houseofshah.com

Posted by Bludde | Report as abusive

another foreign policy failure for the current US administration

Posted by justinoinroma | Report as abusive

How did the U.S. and the West deal with the slaughter of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon when the Israelis got the Lebanese militias to slaughter the refugees? How has the U.S. reacted to the slaughter of Mexicans (a country on their border) to the slaughter by drug cartels? How did the U.S. deal with the slaughter and imprisonment and eventual death of thousands of Chileans when the U.S. helped to overthrow the Allende regime and the U.S. installed Pinochet? How has the U.S. handled China over the Tibet and Uighar killings and occupation? What has the West and the U.S. done to firm up Libya and/or Tunisia? Talk about all, not just one.

Posted by chekovmerlin | Report as abusive

Rohde to hell is paved with good intentions. Though I think Rhode’s intentions are no good.

Posted by queequeg | Report as abusive

“It is one thing to be unable to control the police state re-emerging in Egypt. It is another to provide $1.3 billion in aid.”

U.S. aid to Egypt’s military IS to BUY friendly relations between Israel and Egypt. It’s really part of U.S.’s indirect extravagant financial aid to Israel in tune of approximately $13 billions annually – according to a report on U.S. Foreign policy written by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt.

Posted by PaulBradley | Report as abusive

Oh yes, I forgot. How did the U.S. handle the Israeli’s bombing and gunning down American Sailors in 1967 when the U.S.S. Liberty was observing the Egypt and Israeli War and was in international waters? Something that was more egregious than the Panay incident with the Japanese in 1937 and admittedly in Chinese, not international waters.

Posted by chekovmerlin | Report as abusive

How did the U.S. handle the affair between Georgia and Russia a few years ago?

Posted by chekovmerlin | Report as abusive

Thank you for writing this article. The cutoff of aid should have been immediate and unequivocal after this atrocity. Anything less implies that tacit approval was given to the generals in another back-room intrigue.

Posted by Esmereldo | Report as abusive

The idea that American political leadership is in any way responsible for the situation in Egypt is incredible to me. First they had mass protests to overthrow Mubarak — a man who was genuinely aligned with the United State. Obama and the whole country joined in insisting that this long-time supporter of ours be removed in the interests of a democratic movement that excited the whole world. Then the Brotherhood managed to pick up the pieces, largely because they were the best organized force standing. As expected, and in complete conformance with their aims, they made major constitution moves to make Egypt an Islamic state, with all that means. The army and probably half the population was too frightened of this and the generals staged a coup. Considering the huge fraction of the population that supported this, the US chose not to condemn it. What should Obama have done — intervened militarily to restore the Brotherhood (because nothing less was even conceivable)? This is none of our damn business. A nation divided at the very root over issues of the greatest significance. Egyptians, not Americans, are responsible for everything that’s happened there since the first demonstrations in Cairo. How can this be a foreign policy failure? We’ve simple nodded passively at every change, including the one that brought Mursi to power. The Muslim attitude that make America the evil actor regardless of what we do is simply part of their make-up, and it’s absurd to pander to it. We are doing nothing to stop them from creating whatever society they want — including as Islamic one that could into another Iran.

Posted by From_California | Report as abusive

The idea that American political leadership is in any way responsible for the situation in Egypt is incredible to me. First they had mass protests to overthrow Mubarak — a man who was genuinely aligned with the United State. Obama and the whole country joined in insisting that this long-time supporter of ours be removed in the interests of a democratic movement that excited the whole world. Then the Brotherhood managed to pick up the pieces, largely because they were the best organized force standing. As expected, and in complete conformance with their aims, they made major constitution moves to make Egypt an Islamic state, with all that means. The army and probably half the population was too frightened of this and the generals staged a coup. Considering the huge fraction of the population that supported this, the US chose not to condemn it. What should Obama have done — intervened militarily to restore the Brotherhood (because nothing less was even conceivable)? This is none of our damn business. A nation divided at the very root over issues of the greatest significance. Egyptians, not Americans, are responsible for everything that’s happened there since the first demonstrations in Cairo. How can this be a foreign policy failure? We’ve simple nodded passively at every change, including the one that brought Mursi to power. The Muslim attitude that make America the evil actor regardless of what we do is simply part of their make-up, and it’s absurd to pander to it. We are doing nothing to stop them from creating whatever society they want — including as Islamic one that could into another Iran.

Posted by From_California | Report as abusive

Thoughtful, informed, balanced view. thanks.

Posted by DTamer | Report as abusive

Has the blogger or any of the commentators actually been to Egypt? Do they know the issues or what the current troubles are so bloody? By “been to Egypt” I don’t mean the Nile-and-Pharaoh’s tour but to the heart of Cairo and Alexandria. I have and the poverty in Egypt is astonishing. People live in houses built on garbage heaps. Cairo is totally dependent on tourism for money and the population of Egypt goes up by 1 million or more per year. Morsi and the Moslem Brotherhood, who are largely rural and have more access to food than the city dwellers, were threatening Cairo with starvation by concentrating on power consolidation instead of governing the country in the past year. Ever since the Arab Spring, tourism has fallen off dramatically in Egypt. No tourists means no money and no food. This is a fight between Cairo and shop keepers and the more conservative farmers and Cairo and the shop keepers are determined to win. We may not like what is going on but the world has been ignoring the Egyptian powder keg for 40 years and this situation is way beyond the ability of any US government not willing to send in huge amounts of troops and food immediately into Egypt to control.
Every US administration since the 1970s is complicit in this situation. So, lay off Obama. Rand Paul and the Republicans will not allow the kind of intervention that is required. It would be Iraq all over again.

Posted by Feebwillis | Report as abusive

Well, there are no Republicans or Democrats on this. These people will get freedom, either now or later and it won’t be helped by US Foriegn Aid. If we could dig around I would guess that a lot of American Retailers are busy selling Chinese products in Egypt due to our 1.3 Billion dollar entry fee. I think Egypt wants to stand alone in using its own food, own products and run its own government.

Posted by fred5407 | Report as abusive

How else could American’s witness the global effects of a globe-less leader? American’s voted for an American president. We were sick of wars, and involvements. Now, we see what it means to be in a G-zero world. A world without a strong master leader. If any blame whatsoever is to be directed against Obama, it should be against his Cairo speech. He had a big mouth. As a president who was voted-in to be an “American President” he had no right to inflame the Cairo youths with so much hope – that would ultimately choke them.

Posted by Nietzschele | Report as abusive

A commonsense piece, well said.

“A grim reality is emerging. George W. Bush’s invasion-centric method of countering militancy failed. And so is Obama’s cautious, middle of the road approach.”

Isn’t the grim reality that whichever route you use to try and place democracy in the Middle East, it will inevitably fail? Why? Because the dominant ideology of the region is utterly undemocratic.

Islam calls for a global Islamic rule, achieved by war and oppression. And that’s not any kind of over exaggeration. Its own texts state this plainly. The aim is the Caliphate. If the Koran says that Sharia law must be followed and the majority of the population believe in the Koran, then logically how can anyone suppose that an alternative is possible? There can be no vote.

Yet Western political leaders and media are unwilling to see sense, for to do so would be to admit that their politically correct ideas are founded on nonsense. To do that, would be in turn be to embark on the slippery slope of acknowledging that the vast majority of their policies and approach are founded likewise.

Islam cannot be democratic. To make it democratic is to make it un-Islamic. The West desperately needs to realize this and to then create a realistic (not deranged and fictional) set of policies that stand a chance of working.

Posted by DomKhan | Report as abusive

I have never really read anything by David Rohde before but this article makes him out to be a total hypocrite.

He has compared yesterday’s battle to Tiananmen Square which is not even a mutation of the truth. It is a bald faced lie.

I wish people like David Rohde would just leave us alone! They are causing a lot of suffering by spreading their lies.

Posted by AhmedAdly74 | Report as abusive

“…the United States is more hated and less secure. At the same time, al Qaeda affiliates are gaining fighters, propaganda victories and recruiting tools.”

We told you this is precisely what Obama would seek to achieve, either by design or by accident. You laughed and jeered. Called us xenophobes and racists. Meanwhile, as the Egyptian people fight to keep their country from falling into that abyss known as the Islamic Brotherhood’s worldwide Islamic Caliphate, our newly enraged columnist and the rest of his hooded homeboys in the media condemns them for killing “protestors”. Yeah, right. protestors carrying AKs and RPGs, raping women and murdering Christians.

Silly stupid brain-dead Progressives. Reap the whirlwind.

Posted by HamsterHerder | Report as abusive

Many do not recognize that there are two Egypts – one that is progressive, secular, and wants for Egypt to prosper and join the rest of the world in the 21st century, and the other – a fanatical, regressive Egypt that wants to return to the 12th century, apply Sharia law, and annihilate the Christian and other minorities, destroy Israel, the Sphinx and the pyramids. The question is: which side do the governments of the West want to side with?

Posted by worldscan | Report as abusive

The brotherhood and their islamist ilk are our enemy and the enemy of all nonbelievers and we should come down on the side of the majority of Egyptians who clearly support ending the brotherhoods reign short as it was. There have been over 50 police killed by these peaceful demonstrators. I hope for a return to democracy for egypt without the brotherhood.

Posted by JHD2 | Report as abusive

We should cut off aid to the entire ungrateful region, except for humanitarian assistance.

Posted by originalfatboy | Report as abusive

In the past, we had standards that were set and those standards were kept by our government. Basic freedoms, human rights, taking care of our people and country first – but no more.

We supported our allies and we knew what those allies stood for and against. Now we support those countries and their leaders if we think we can get something – anything – in return for that support. Our standards have slipped away and we have been left to try and redeem ourselves.

Military aid should be stopped – completely. Humanitarian aid given if we can be certain it will not be diverted to leaders of countries that will use it for other purposes.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

Well written article.

For those of you commenting about the MB, this struggle is not a religious one, but really about power. The army wants to regain power.

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

very important west should think by the way every one is very wiked bush or either obama will do wat will be in american interest putin will do wat will be in his country interest even china too but we muslims delema is this we are choped in big game although i m a member of a big muslim redical islamist party of pakistan we believe in justice democracy and freedom of speach but wat we saw with our brothers happend in egypt they took power by democratic way even they called turkey primeminster who openly favoured even secularism we crossed our limits and even tolerating seclarism as a system of government but u narrow minded westrens never see islamist will not tolerate us even we adopt secularism but u will not tolerate our system of governance we want make pakistan corodoba, like muslim spain in which progress for every one even for jews not zionist for christians for hindus for every one we want to see the world this way like muslim spain like todays turkey but u are not letting us u r pushing us to walls not letting any way out for we peaceful muslims u.s and u.k adopting such policies backing military rule in egypt and did not even talk over crises of egypt and muslim brotherhood that eman azawahiri and alqaida propaganda and theories are gaining popularity in pakistan even every young muslim is thinking this way that u.s and u.k and even russias and china hypocracy and baking of thier agents not for real democracy and justice and freedom of speech y are u so serious for levant or syria not for the regime change actually u r afraid of rivaval of islamic califate and chemical weapons going in hand of rebels near of victory this is the real reason do u want egypt another syria then u will intervene for ur own interests dr usama khan mb karachi pakistan

Posted by drmaximus | Report as abusive