Jewish Journal


The Egypt Dilemma: The Need for Presidential Sobriety

by Shmuel Rosner

August 19, 2013 | 5:56 am

President Barack Obama
Photo by Reuters

On Sunday evening I exchanged some emails with Menachem Lazar, an Israeli pollster (Panels Politics). Late last week, we sat together on a TV panel discussion about Egypt. He was there to tell us what Israelis think, and I was there to try to guess what the US administration wants– a much harder task as it’s doubtful whether the administration itself has a clue.

Lazar was armed with his latest poll in which two questions were about Egypt. The first one was:  “Are you afraid that the situation in Egypt will deteriorate into a clash with Israel?” Most Israelis seemed calm- 55% said “no” while 37% said “yes”. The second question was trickier: “If the shooting from the Sinai Peninsula into Israel continues, should Israel take action in Sinai even without coordinating it with the Egyptian government?” A plurality of 46% of Israelis said yes, but 39% said no, proving that the public has little appetite for confrontation with the Egyptian government. Having seen how ruthless the new leaders of Egypt can be, it is no wonder that Israelis don’t want to jump their guns. Having seen how ruthless the Egyptians can be, Israelis might hope that there will be no need for Israeli intervention. Apparently, a determined leader can turn the Egyptian military into an effective killing machine.

Lazar, in our short email exchange, told me, tongue in cheek, that with events moving so fast he would have asked a different question today: he would have asked about whether America's current behavior might be putting the peace treaty with Egypt at risk. Of course, no one truly suspects that the Obama administration wants to put the peace treaty at risk. In fact, its dogged refusal to acquiesce to the voices calling it to sever ties with the Egyptian regime or to cut financial assistance to the regime, is in large measure because of its desire to protect stability and the peace treaty. Still, President Obama and his administration’s policy toward Egypt puzzle Israelis. 78% of them told Lazar that peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians aren’t likely to achieve peace, yet they see the administration putting a lot of effort in these negotiations while neglecting to get its act together on the burning issue of Egypt.

One gets the feeling that Israelis have moved from suspecting Obama, even disliking him, to feeling sorry for him, to thinking of him as a clueless President. His visit to Jerusalem made it clear to most of them that the President isn’t hostile to Israel; that he wants to be a friend. So they no longer rage as they speak about him. They just mock him or dismiss him as inconsequential. When I was on a radio show this morning – once again tasked with guiding the perplexed through the intricacies of American policies – the name Carter was invoked by the anchor. Not as in 'Obama is as unsympathetic to Israel as Carter', but rather as in 'he is going to end up being a failure like Carter'. Later in the afternoon I talked to a retired Israeli General turned politician. Remember – he said to me with a smirk – when Obama was given the Noble Peace Prize?

I am trying to defend him in these occasions, I really am. Partially because mocking him is becoming almost boring; partially because I don't really like the dismissive tone - assuming that 'Obama is dumb' is as ridiculous today as assuming that 'Bush is dumb' was ridiculous yesterday; partially because people make too much out of this failure to have an Egypt-policy. Had Obama had such a policy, would it really have made a difference? Yes, it would have made the US look like less of a joke in the eyes of Middle Eastern wiseasses who always know better (let’s face it, the people of the Middle East have very little to be smug about: the joke, after all, is on them – on us). And it would possibly make the President a little more effective when it comes to the little things: getting his phone calls through, getting the leader on the other side to make a small gesture. It’s doubtful, though, whether Obama could have had much impact on the big things.  

What really happened to the Obama administration in Egypt? There are many different accounts of its confusion in which one can find differing expert opinions. And there's no agreed upon explanation for its... (I was going to write 'confusion', but there are those who don't even think it's confusion.)

The dilemma regarding Egypt and many other matters is quite obvious to everybody.

There’s option one: support the democratic process, support what the “people” want, support the winner of the election, and oppose all measures of regime brutality against the people. This option subscribes to the notion that the long term interest of the US demands that it shows true belief in Arab sovereignty and that it is ready to live with the consequences of Arab democracy. "What's happening now in Egypt - the crackdown on Islamists, the widespread bloodshed - and what's happened in Syria is going to build the new jihadist narrative of betrayal by the West," Michele Dunne, who runs the Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, told NPR. "That the United States failed to come to the assistance of the Syrian people in a timely and effective fashion, and that it failed to not only act effectively but even to withdraw assistance from the Egyptian military when it cracked down on Islamists inside of Egypt". Buying this argument leads to a policy of support for Morsi, and of cutting ties with Sisi. It leads to a policy of willingness to pay a (hopefully) short-term price to try to get to the long-term goal of a reformed Middle East.

And of course, there’s option two: support stability and those who are willing to be the allies of America and of peace, and don't support those who represent the forces of radicalism and clerical rule, and who have questionable ties with terrorists. This option is the option of the skeptics, of those who think, in Walter Russell Mead's words that "Obama has had a rude awakening in the Middle East". He once had a "dream" in which in the Middle East "democracy at least of a sort was just around the corner. Moderate Islamists would engage with the democratic process, and the experience would lead them to ever more moderate behavior". But he should know now that it isn't worth it to pay a very heavy price now for a dream that might never come (a dream of Arab democracy and a liberal Middle East). So this is the policy option for those who believe that democracy is not for everyone, that it needs to be built gradually and can only survive and thrive under proper circumstances. This is the option which Israel is now promoting, more blatantly today than yesterday (see what an Israeli senior official said to the New York Times this morning), and I assume even more so tomorrow, if today isn't enough. Buying this argument means that the US is willing to be somewhat hypocritical when it talks about democratic values while turning a deaf ear to the voices of gun shots in the streets of Cairo. It leads to a policy of what-have-we-done-by-giving-up-on-Mubarak and of lets-find-someone-as-close-to-a-Mubarak-as-possible to replace him.

Some shades of gray are available to policy makers, but all in all, not many of them: The Obama team needed to make its choice, and then stick to it - not because it would dramatically alter the way Egypt's short-term events unfold, but rather because it has impact on the standing of the US in the region and beyond. Yet, it didn't. Elliott Abrams writes in Commentary that "the Obama administration is pursuing neither an idealistic foreign policy based on altruistic considerations of 'world citizenship,' nor a realpolitik policy designed to maximize American power and influence in an age of limits through careful assertions of power and the strengthening and utilization of alliances. What foreign policy is it pursuing, then?"

Abrams is kind to Obama and attempts in his article to concoct some sort of coherent worldview that might explain the President's policies. While I appreciate the temptation to find such illuminating explanations, I tend to subscribe to a less forgiving view: the Obama team's blunder isn’t about it making a wrong choice. It is about it making no choice. It is about it looking at a playing field containing two not very appealing choices – this is often the case as countries ponder their options – and instead of playing by the rules- i.e., looking for the least-worst option- deciding not to play.

It is the kind of choice you’d call juvenile if teenagers were involved, and hence the chorus of mockery it’s getting in response, including the response of many Israelis, also tends to be somewhat juvenile in tone. But what happens next in Egypt is a serious issue and the situation at hand requires adult sobriety- the ability to make do with an inconvenient yet necessary choice.

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