Lost in the Desert

What does the Obama administration make of Egypt's Mohamed Morsy? Not much. But they've still got to figure out how to work with him.

In recent days, I've been talking to officials in the Obama administration about what they think they're doing in Egypt. Even as Obama hesitates to thrust the United States into the rolling cauldron that is Syria, critics accuse him of coddling a dictator in Cairo. Congressional Republicans like Marco Rubio accuse the administration of cutting a $250 million blank check to Mohammed Morsy's authoritarian, Islamist regime. Analysts with no axe to grind, like Michael Walid Hanna of the Century Foundation or Peter Juul of the Center for American Progress, make the more nuanced argument that the administration has rewarded Morsy for his compliance on American national security goals, just as his predecessors did with Hosni Mubarak.

Is that fair? Obama does, after all, deserve credit for openly accepting the Egyptian people's choice of an Islamist government after long years when Washington viewed any partnership with Islamists as beyond the pale. But it is also true that the administration has under-reacted as Morsy made himself immune from judicial oversight, rammed through an illiberal constitution, and showed contempt for his opponents. And while it's impossible to prove, Morsy may well have felt that this strategic silence gave him carte blanche to continue down his path of majoritarian autocracy. Obama has not wanted to rock Morsy's very fragile boat. One figure who left the administration after the first term conceded that "We are not raising our voice," and added, that "there hasn't been enough attention to supporting those who are on the other side."

Let's stipulate that Obama has erred on the side of caution with Egypt. That is his nature, after all, and it's a lot better than the alternative, which we tried with that Bush guy. Obama's overall pattern in the Arab Spring has been doing the right thing, but a little late. So what now? What do administration officials think about Morsy, and how do they believe that they can influence his behavior? The short answer is that they think that Morsy and his circle are in way over his heads, and worry much more about their incompetence than their intolerance. "This is a bunch of guys who have been in jail for 40 years," said one figure. "They don't know what they're doing, they're paranoid, and they're making a huge number of mistakes. But there's no alternative to pushing them forward on the democratic path." Morsy, in short, is the wrong man for the moment, but also the only man. He must be nudged; and he can be nudged.

The administration's view of the opposition is like almost everyone's view of the opposition -- it's feckless, lazy, and disorganized, happier sulking in Cairo than campaigning in the countryside. When Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo last week, he spoke to leading figures, including Mohammed ElBaradei and Amr Moussa, and urged them not to boycott the upcoming parliamentary election, as they are currently planning to do. Morsy's plummeting popularity should allow his opponents to make serious gains -- though many of those gains may go to Salafists rather than secularists. The only good news here is that the elections now seem likely to be postponed for three to four months, which would give the opposition time to reconsider a very bad decision.

Finally, the Obama administration seems to feel more comfortable with the Egyptian army than with any other current institution. After all, the reasoning goes, the army deposed Mubarak and delivered power to an elected leader, whom it has since helped sustain. "They have been resolute in working with the Israelis, they work well on the border," says the official mentioned above. The administration has no interest in seeking to either cut or seriously reprogram military assistance, as many critics have suggested -- and Kerry said nothing about it in Cairo.

Obama, in short, is less worried about authoritarian regression than he is about Egypt falling apart. Egypt's treasury has only three months of foreign exchange left, with no more money coming from Qatar or elsewhere. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is offering a $4.8 billion loan, which is Cairo's only chance to stave off bankruptcy. And other institutions which might supply additional financing, including the World Bank and the Africa Development Bank, will not act until Egypt signs an accord with the IMF. The IMF, however, is demanding that Egypt make some reforms which are politically excruciating -- above all, cutting subsidies which keep down the price of energy and food. Morsy's answer is that Washington should tell the IMF to just give Egypt money.

The fear in Washington is thus that Egypt's hapless leadership is sending the country over a cliff. The nightmare scenario is of an Egypt unable to pay its bills, which would send half of Cairo flooding into Tahrir Square. The military might even feel it had to take control once again. That's today's problem. In Cairo, Kerry publicly harped on the need to reach agreement on the loan, and in private admonished (or perhaps the word is browbeat) Morsy to make the tough political choices, and to begin working with the opposition. And Kerry offered incentives: a $250 million down payment on the $1 billion which Obama has promised to make available, as well as an additional $300 million once Morsy signed a deal with the IMF.

So the overall toolbox is this: modest financial incentives, private exhortations with public encouragement, and no punitive measures. Is that really a sufficient response to a crisis of this magnitude afflicting the historic heartland of the Arab world? The first and most obvious thing that needs to be said is that it's way better than what Republican foreign policy geniuses like Marco Rubio have in mind, since withholding economic assistance until Egypt makes the political changes he wants will virtually ensure the kind of calamity which will make political compromise the least of Egypt's worries. And given Morsy's haplessness -- but also the likely backlash against public criticism from the United States -- private admonitions may be more effective right now than public opprobrium.

The big problem is money. In his recent book, Dispensable Nation, Vali Nasr points out that the United States offered large-scale assistance when democratic waves washed over Latin America and Eastern Europe, but has offered only trifling aid in the Arab world, and above all in Egypt. That's true; even Obama's promised $1 billion consists heavily of loan guarantees. And while Libya and even Tunisia will not need massive financial help, Egypt will. The administration has begun working on a multinational plan to leverage private investment in the democratizing Arab states -- another incentive for Morsy to sign a deal with the IMF. But there are no more Marshall Plans in the offing. The cupboard is bare.

On balance, I'm mostly with my colleague Marc Lynch, who argues that Obama has pretty much done what he can in Egypt. But that very fact brings home the limits of the possible. The fragile Arab democracies and would-be democracies need help more desperately than Poland or Hungary did; but they are also harder to help. There is not a lot the administration can do to make Egypt's political opposition engage in democratic politics, and there is not a lot it can do to make Morsy realize that winning a parliamentary majority does not authorize you to run roughshod over your opponents. Those are insights only gained through painful experience. And yes, the United States simply doesn't have the scratch any more. Financing is not something Washington leverages; it furnishes. In that regard, those who say the United States is weaker than it used to be are right.

Nasr argues that Washington has given up on the Arab world -- in fact, pretty much on the whole world. I think it's fairer to say that Obama can't do a good deal that he might like to do, and that he's quite prepared to rationalize that with the proposition that the Arab world must be allowed to work out its destiny on its own. Is that cynicism? Maybe a little. Mostly, I'd say, it's just reality.   

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Terms of Engagement

How Not to Repair a Broken Pot

The lesson of Iraq isn't that American intervention only makes things worse; it's that there's a smarter way to do it.

The 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq is still almost two weeks away, but I want to draw some lessons from the experience before we're all overtaken by the hoopla and huzzah, the commemorative stamps of Gen. Tommy Franks and the Little Miss Shock 'N' Awe beauty pageants. My colleague and boss, David Rothkopf, has already teased out some meta-morals from both Iraq and Afghanistan, but I would like to suggest some more-specific lessons arising from one particularly calamitous miscalculation in Iraq. The International Center for Transitional Justice has just issued a report, "A Bitter Legacy: Lessons of De-Baathification in Iraq," and it is well worth reading as a guide for what not to do when trying to repair broken crockery in the Middle East.

Reporting in recent years has thoroughly exposed the source of this blunder. In his book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Rajiv Chandrasekaran shows that Ahmad Chalabi, the sly, self-aggrandizing émigré leader, convinced Douglas Feith, director of the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, that the Baath Party was the functional equivalent of Nazism and that thus Iraq needed to be de-Nazified. Neither the State Department nor the CIA nor even President George W. Bush was prepared to go that far, but Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon was all in. When Paul Bremer, the new head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, was preparing to leave for Iraq, Feith briefed him on the plan, and Bremer seized on it as a decisive break with the past. Once in Iraq, Bremer's senior aides in Iraq told him that ousting tens of thousands of party members would decimate the ministries and outrage Sunnis, but his mind was made up. From this utterly foreseeable mistake (and from the companion error of dissolving the Iraqi Army), disaster flowed.

What the new report vividly demonstrates, though, is that, rather than putting down a marker of American authority in occupied Iraq, Bremer created a monster that quickly lurched out of control and began laying waste to whatever remained of nonsectarian governance in Iraq. American control over the process lasted barely three months. With power passing to the Iraqis, Chalabi created and took over a de-Baathification commission, and he promptly expanded its writ to include new categories of former regime officials to be removed from public positions, established de-Baathification commissions in every ministry, canceled previous reinstatements, and took over the appeals process, thus eliminating due process protections built into the American plan. De-Baathification had become a tool for sectarian score-settling and the promotion of Shiite political goals rather than a means of isolating bad actors.

Over time, Chalabi and his colleagues were able to use de-Baathification to eliminate hundreds of political rivals as well as judges deemed insufficiently committed to Shiite objectives, like imposing the death penalty on Saddam Hussein. The savage civil war that convulsed Iraq beginning in 2004 was provoked in part by Sunnis' recognition that they were the collective losers of the U.S. invasion and that there would be little place for them in the new Iraq.

The Bush administration's conduct in postwar Iraq was so reckless and deluded that one is inclined to draw from it only the most staggeringly obvious lessons: Listen to people who actually know something about the country in question; don't do anything irreversible before thinking about it long and hard; it's the politics, stupid. We know all that now -- and plenty of people knew it before. But if we probe more deeply, the experience also provides guidelines for American behavior elsewhere in the Middle East.

The Bush administration's naiveté took the form of viewing the Baath Party as a cancer that could be safely lanced from an otherwise healthy body politic, rather than as a symptom of a profoundly divided society. This was no mystery: U.N. officials like envoy Lakhdar Brahimi understood that their role was to help Iraqis find a distribution of power and privilege that all parties could live with. Americans, however, could not bring themselves to acknowledge Iraq's sectarian reality until it was too late, for this reality contradicted their airy dreams for remaking the country. If policymakers had understood this from the outset, they would have focused on reintegrating Sunnis as much as on satisfying Shiite demands for justice.

In this respect, Iraq has turned out to be a far more useful model for the post-revolutionary Arab world than we ever would have expected -- or wished. In Egypt, Libya, and Syria, as Aaron David Miller noted Feb. 27, hopes for a new national consciousness have been snuffed out by the power of religious and sectarian identity. In Syria, nonviolent protest against a reviled dictator has gradually evolved into a civil war between a Shiite elite and its Sunni victims. In Egypt and Libya, the divide is not between Sunni and Shiite but between a religious and a more or less secular conception of the state. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya is promoting what one analyst recently called an "unfathomably draconian" law designed to exclude anyone ever associated with Muammar al-Qaddafi's reign, and the group is threatening to bring down the government unless the law is passed as written. The "political isolation" law serves the same nakedly political purposes as did Chalabi's de-Baathification commission. And it will have the same effect of dividing the country into winners and losers.

One lesson of Iraq is thus that the combination of deep sectarian and religious divides, added to a long-suppressed hunger for power and the complete absence of any tradition of compromise, means that it may be many years before Arab states can focus on collective problem-solving rather than competing claims of identity. (Tunisia is the one possible exception.) Another lesson, however, is that outside actors can make things worse, and perhaps better as well. If the United States had acted more like the United Nations -- if Washington had, in fact, empowered the U.N. to act to help broker Iraq's political infighting -- Iraq's Sunnis might not have concluded that the war's net effect was to replace a Sunni dictatorship with a Shiite one. Iraq would still be a mess, but slightly less of one.

How does this lesson apply to states where the United States is an anxious spectator rather than an occupying force? Washington has much less leverage in Egypt than it had in Iraq in 2003, and Barack Obama's administration has limited its capacity to playing the role of honest broker between deeply divided parties by appearing to side with President Mohamed Morsy. Egypt is not going to go the way of Iraq, but it is a mistake to think that a free election there has heralded the arrival of democracy. The administration is right to focus on Egypt's immediate economic prospects, but has been too modest about using the leverage it has to prevent Morsy from establishing a form of majoritarian autocracy. Iraq teaches us that decisions made in early days create a path dependency, for good or ill.

This administration is in no way blithe about the underlying dynamic of Arab states, certainly not as much as the Bush White House was. Obama has, if anything, taken the lesson of Iraq too much to heart in Syria, where he fears doing anything that might inadvertently strengthen the hand of Islamic fundamentalists. He has thus chosen prudence over what could turn out to be reckless action. But the lesson of Iraq is not that the United States can only make things worse, but rather that it has to be acutely aware of the consequences of its actions on volatile societies. Inaction is a policy too, and it has turned out to be just as reckless in its own way, for the combination of endless violence and despair over the outcome has unleashed Syria's sectarian demons. Iraq also reminds us that one of the first jobs in a new Syria, whenever that day comes, will be assuring Alawites, who now rule the country, that they will not suffer collective punishment. Outside actors, including the U.N., will have an important role to play there.

Iraq was the graveyard of American fantasies of transformation. It should not, however, convince us that the United States has no role to play in an Arab world poised between a long autocratic nightmare and the first glimmerings of democracy.

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