Speak Softly and Carry No Stick

Welcome to the Obama Doctrine in Egypt.

President Barack Obama, we know, believes in "engagement." He believes that maintaining ties even with the most hateful regimes holds out the possibility of progress. In his Nobel Peace Prize speech he mocked moralists -- implicitly including his predecessor, George W. Bush -- who preferred "the satisfying purity of indignation" to the hard and very impure work of diplomacy. And that, I imagine, is why Obama has reacted so cautiously to the shocking massacres in Egypt, canceling planned military exercises but leaving U.S. military aid intact.

I think this is a serious mistake. But the calculus that may have lead Obama to his decision is one that I would have admired in a different context. It's a calculus that needs to be reckoned with. I'll try to do that here.

Both Obama and many of the people whose advice he has listened to since 2009 are morally driven figures who nevertheless accept that the world is a fallen place which cannot easily be changed, even with all of America's might.  Samantha Power, a senior White House official before she became U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, used to say, "We are all consequentialists now." We -- that is, outside advocates and activists like her who had joined the administration -- had an obligation to choose words, and policies, according to their consequences, not according to some abstract moral scale. If praising dictators in Sudan or Burma, as the administration did at times, encouraged them to reconcile with their rivals, then they should be praised. Cutting ties to demonstrate the purity of your indignation, by contrast, is irresponsible.

Obama's consequentialism was a welcome relief from Bush's moralism. Perhaps Obama should have more sharply criticized the grossly fraudulent Iranian election in 2009, but he held his tongue for fear of jeopardizing talks on nuclear enrichment. It's true that the Iranian authorities simply pocketed Washington's silence and remained intractable; but they would have pocketed American outrage with the same nonchalance. The United States has far more to gain from engaging Iran than it does from issuing ultimatums, even if Israel and most of the U.S. Congress don't see it that way.

Doesn't the same logic apply to today's Egypt? After all, even the Bush administration was unprepared to lower the boom on President Hosni Mubarak when he rigged elections and sent thugs to beat and kill protestors in direct defiance of a promise to Washington. When I was writing The Freedom Agenda, my book about Bush's embrace of democracy promotion, I asked White House and State Department officials why they hadn't even threatened to cut military aid to Egypt. The answer was: Because it wouldn't do any good, and because "we have other fish to fry" with Egypt, which served as a regional counterweight to Iran and a reliable supporter of U.S. policy towards Israel.

Today, of course, those same fish are still frying, especially as Secretary of State John Kerry tries to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. This may explain why Kerry has continued to absurdly insist that a path to a political solution in Egypt "is still open" -- even as Islamists are being hunted down in the street. At the same time, it's just as absurd to imagine that a suspension of the $1.5 billion a year in U.S. aid, or the threat of it, would have any effect on Egypt's new military rulers. They have waded hip-deep in blood; they won't retrace their steps because Washington is outraged.

In fact, any punitive action would be the purest of moral gestures. First of all, since the new regime's Gulf backers will probably make up for any shortfall in Western assistance, the threat is almost meaningless. Second, no one's listening. In the Mubarak era, threatening aid would have signaled to activists and protestors that Washington stood with them. But yesterday's activists are today's apologists for mass murder; just read the repellent statement of support for the assaults issued by the National Salvation Front, the aptly named civilian façade for Egypt's new military rulers. There is no one in Egypt to whom to send a signal. A consequentialist would thus ask: Why bother?

The answer is that silence has consequences too. To register nothing more than disappointment in the face of a military coup, the arrest and imminent trial of overthrown leaders, and the killing of hundreds of civilians is to make a very blunt statement about the relative importance the United States gives to democracy and human rights, on the one hand, and national interests, narrowly construed, on the other. It is the message the elder George Bush, a master of consequentialism, gave when he restored regular working relations with China soon after the massacre at Tiananmen Square. The signal was meant for the Chinese leadership, but it was heard loud and clear by both dictators and ordinary citizens the world over. What they understood is that Washington was prepared to overlook any amount of bloodshed in order to resume relations with an important ally.

Statesmen, of course, must make painful choices that look ugly from the outside. The United States does not criticize Saudi Arabia's appallingly repressive regime for the same reason it used to pull its punches on Mubarak's Egypt: It wouldn't help, and there are other fish to fry. But Saudi oppression is a steady state, and Egypt has just engaged in an orgy of brutality that has riveted the world's attention. The United States cannot look away and pivot to Asia on this one. On the other side of the balance, if the U.S. were to withdraw its support, Egypt would still be very unlikely to change its pro-Western regional posture -- which is a matter of national self-interest. Thus if there is little to be gained by the moral gesture, neither is there much to be lost by it. Even a cool-headed calculating consequentialist might then pull the plug.

If that's so, why does Obama continue to behave as if he has the wisdom and maturity to deny himself a cheap thrill? Perhaps because the experience of the last four-plus years has so thoroughly imbued him with a sense of the intransigence of the world, and the limits of American power, that he now automatically defaults to the more modest option. Bush-the-elder was born a realist; Obama is a convert. He has explained his reluctance to intervene forcefully in Syria by asking why he should act there and not in the Congo, where even more people have been killed -- a strangely rhetorical question from a man who has embraced the principle that states have a responsibility to protect citizens from mass atrocities. And this, too, is a signal -- and not one the Barack Obama of 2008 would ever have expected to send.

I would like to say that suspending aid to Egypt is now in America's national interest. Maybe it's not; maybe it's a wash. So I will say instead that it has become a matter of national self-respect. Democracies have to be able to look at themselves in the mirror, and to accept, if not like, what they see. That is why the message we send to Egypt is not an indulgence, but a necessity.


Terms of Engagement

The Liberal Dark Side

Why rationalizing Egypt’s coup as a necessary evil is so self-destructive.

Of all the dreadful features of Egypt's coup -- or second revolution, if you prefer -- the one which has left me feeling most discouraged is the almost universal embrace by the country's liberal activists of the principle that rule by the military is preferable to rule by elected Islamists -- even if that means crushing the Muslim Brotherhood as brutally as the government of Hosni Mubarak once crushed the liberals themselves (and the Brotherhood). A recent report by the International Crisis Group cites a senior member of the left-leaning Social Democratic party on just this Faustian bargain: "The new mindset is that 'yes,' Islamists may get radicalised, but we are ready to confront that and pay the cost of it.... The state apparatus is willing to deal with a cycle of violence rather than surrender its control over the state."

How can we account for a "new mindset" which looks so utterly self-destructive? If the secular and civil organs of the state -- the bureaucracy, the police, the army -- had, in fact, surrendered control to the government of President Mohamed Morsy, liberals might have had good reason to reach the paradoxical conclusion that only military force could restore democratic order. But of course that wasn't so. Morsy ruled with contemptuous indifference to the political opposition, but made very few inroads on the state apparatus, which resisted him to the last. Just think of the comparison with Iraq's President Nouri al-Maliki, who has seized control over the state and the military in a manner all too reminiscent of Saddam Hussein. Maliki probably cannot be unseated through democratic means; Morsy could have been.

What happened in Egypt was not a second "revolution" against authoritarian rule but a mass repudiation of Muslim Brotherhood rule. This contagion has spread rapidly to Tunisia, where the Brotherhood party -- Ennahda -- has been far more conscious than was Morsy's Freedom and Justice Party of the limits of its mandate, ruling in a coalition with two secular parties and soft-pedaling controversial provisions in the proposed new constitution. Yet tens of thousands of Tunisians have taken to the streets in recent days to shout the same slogans against the government that they did against the hated tyrant Zine El Abidine Ben-Ali. If the government doesn't fall, precipitating a profound crisis of authority, it will only be because Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda's leader, is prepared to make compromises that Morsy would not abide.

If the same forces have arisen against the Brotherhood in Tunisia as they have in Egypt, then Morsy, no matter how incompetent and intolerant he was, can't be wholly responsible for his fate. Nor can one say that this anti-democratic uprising of democratic forces is a "stage" of development. Mass disaffection with new democratic regimes which fail to deliver prosperity or stability is common, and sometimes leads either to an outright coup, as happened recently in Mali, or to the restoration of the ancien regime through an election, as in Ukraine. But that's not what happened in Egypt, where the same forces that overthrew a military dictator deposed the dictator's democratically elected replacement.

Egypt's path has, in effect, imparted a democratic gloss to a military crackdown.

The army and police have killed several hundred protestors, some of them assassination-style. After a massacre of 83 civilians, the interior minister announced that he was restoring Mubarak's hated secret police. What was striking, as Heba Morayef, the Human Rights Watch director in Egypt, noted, was not so much the policy as the complacent public announcement, which showed that the security apparatus feels "they have been returned to their pre-2011 status." Only a few -- a very few -- Tahrir Square activists have protested the re-militarization of the state. Emboldened, Egypt's government is now preparing to put a violent end to the Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-in by Brotherhood supporters, a prospect that international diplomats are desperately trying to prevent.

Why the lack of outcry? What many of us on the outside underestimated was not the popularity of the Brotherhood -- that was obvious to anyone who even superficially knew Egypt -- but the depth of the suspicion and hostility it engendered. When I was in Cairo writing about the Brotherhood in the far-off days of 2007, virtually all of the secular academics and human rights activists I met viewed the Brothers less as a religious body than as an organized conspiracy, patiently gestating a plot to seize the nation's commanding heights. A senior Mubarak official compared them to the Nazi Party. This loathing was, in fact, the one thing the state and its critics could agree on. They all thought I was a dupe for believing that the Brothers might take a constructive part in Egypt.

The role of the Brotherhood is a -- perhaps the -- distinctive feature of the Arab Spring, or at least of the North African sub-species. The democratic transitions in South America, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, had two sides, even if the "opposition" was wildly heterogeneous. In Egypt, Tunisia, and perhaps Libya, it has three: the old regime, the liberals, and the Brotherhood. The point is not simply that religious identity is more salient in the Arab world than elsewhere. The Brotherhood, after all, is less hostile to secularism than are the Salafists, who have carefully positioned themselves outside the current conflict. (In Tunisia, the Salafists are the common enemy of Ennahda and its critics.) Secular forces in Egypt fear the Islamizing zeal of the Brotherhood, but they also fear the Brotherhood as a secret organization with a history of violence, if an ancient one; an opaque leadership culture, and murky ties to the state.

Morsy's single greatest mistake, in retrospect, was failing to put those fears to rest by ruling with the forces he had politically defeated. He was a bad president, and an increasingly unpopular one. But nations with no historical experience of democracy do not usually get an effective or liberal-minded ruler the first time around. Elections give citizens a chance to try again. With a little bit of patience, the opposition could have defeated Morsy peacefully. Instead, by colluding in the banishment of the Brotherhood from political life, they are about to replace one tyranny of the majority with another. And since many Islamists, now profoundly embittered, will not accept that new rule, the new tyranny of the majority will have to be more brutally enforced than the old one.

Perhaps this new Egypt can become a kind of modernizing autocracy, as Mubarak's circle sought to do in the years before 2011. As I wrote in my last column, Egypt now has a highly competent economic team which could open up the economy, reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund and put Egypt on a path to growth. But none of that is likely to happen so long as half the country feels disenfranchised by the other half. The half that was in is now the half that is out, but Egypt is as divided today as it was before June 30. And that's unlikely to change, since Egypt's liberals seem more consumed by hatred of the Brotherhood than the Brothers were by the liberals.

Perhaps we in the West were confused by the word "liberal," which we associate with a tolerant and dispassionate attitude towards difference. That kind of attitude presupposes a sense of confidence about the world, and about the political marketplace, which Arab publics have very little reason to feel. When the stakes feel truly dire, as they do in Egypt, liberalism itself can become a form of zealotry. This is the dark place in which Egypt now finds itself.