There’s some soul searching going on in the Obama administration as it ponders how they got sidelined in Egypt as the situation there got out of control in a spiral of violence. As theNew York Times details in a post-mortem of U.S. policy, the administration went all out to persuade the military that had overthrown the Muslim Brotherhood to compromise and allow the Islamists to rejoin the government. Among other efforts to cajole them or to threaten aid cutoffs, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made 17 often-lengthy phone calls to Egyptian General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi trying to get him to make nice with the Brotherhood. They even sent two Republican senators—John McCain and Lindsey Graham—to continue the pressure in person in Cairo. And they’re baffled as to why they were ignored as Sisi ordered police and troops to clear out the Brotherhood’s armed camps in Cairo this week.
The easy answer to their questions is that unlike Sisi and the military, President Obama and his foreign policy-team continue to fail to understand that the conflict in Egypt is a zero-sum game. The choice there is between the military and the Brotherhood and the transformation of a key Arab country into an Islamist stronghold. This failure to comprehend the nature of the conflict has led inevitably to paralysis. This spectacle of American impotence is worrisome no matter what you think the U.S. should do about Egypt. But it’s not unrelated to the administration’s other foreign-policy failures that are piling up in the Middle East. Having failed to act decisively to try to avoid a far bigger bloodbath in Syria, and content to waste years on futile diplomacy on the Iranian nuclear threat while devoting disproportionate effort on reviving Israeli-Palestinian talks that have little chance to succeed, it’s obvious that Egypt isn’t the only venue where Obama has demonstrated his cluelessness. As Sisi prepares to decide whether to enact a ban on the Brotherhood that might bring the confrontation in Egypt to a head, it’s important to understand that Obama’s failure in Egypt is not unrelated to his problems elsewhere. The common thread is a refusal to abandon its preconceptions and to look at facts rather than fiction inspired by ideology.
In Egypt, Obama’s main problem is his lack of understanding of the threat that the Muslim Brotherhood poses to both the non-Islamist majority in that country as well as to the region. Having bought into the myth that the Brotherhood’s rise in the aftermath of the fall of the Mubarak regime was an expression of democratic sentiment, it refused to see that if it was allowed to take power it would quickly move to destroy any opposition. The U.S. pressured the military to let Mohamed Morsi take office and then continued to urge them to stand aside as he proceeded to demonstrate that the Brotherhood had little interest in democracy. Even as 14 million people took to the streets to demand that Morsi step …read more