Jacob Heilbrunn

Is Obama An Enabler of Tyranny in Egypt?

When President Obama visited Cairo on June 4, 2009, he made a special point of declaring that he had come to establish a new beginning between the United States and the Arab world. This beginning, he said, would be based "upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive...they overlap, and share common principles—principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings." Now, in Egypt, an authoritarian government, headed by the military, is slaughtering followers of Islam, and what does Obama have to say?

Not much, it appears. What is emerging from the president and his advisers is a few worried murmurs of protest, coupled with studied indecision. Where are the human-rights activists such as UN ambassador Samantha Power? Where is national-security adviser Susan Rice who vowed to stick up for the oppressed after she remained silent during the genocide in Rwanda? Do they agree with Secretary of State John Kerry's earlier assessment that the military is "restoring democracy" in Egypt?

Instead of protesting the Egyptian military's actions, or even threatening to cut off military aid, the administration is refusing to deem the events in Egypt a coup. The Washington Post editorial page says that the administration is "complicit" with the military's actions. It adds,

It is difficult to imagine how the assault on the Brotherhood, which won multiple elections and is still supported by millions of Egyptians, can be followed by a credible transition to democracy. More likely, it will lead Egypt toward still greater violence. It may be that outside powers cannot now change this tragic course of events. But if the United States wishes to have some chance to influence a country that has been its close ally for four decades, it must immediately change its policy toward the armed forces.

If a serious case could be made that Egpyt is headed towards stable, authoritarian rule, it would be one thing. In that instance, it might be plausible to invoke Henry Kissinger's famous comment about Chile and add that a country shouldn't be allowed to go hardline Islamist. But the problem is this: Is Obama being a realist when it comes to Egypt? Or is he being utterly unrealistic about what the future holds for Washington's ties with Cairo? America's track record, when it comes to supporting corrupt and authoritarian regimes, particularly in the Middle East, is a mixed one. Obama, you could even say, is inadvertently doing what he said he wanted to end in his Cairo speech: "empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and...promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity."

For Egypt appears to be headed toward, at best, an armed truce, and, at worst, a civil war. The Islamists are being further radicalized. America will be blamed. How does this end the "cycle of suspicion and discord" that Obama identified and lamented in June 2009?

Indeed, it may well be that the conflagration that the neoconservatives hoped would erupt in the Middle East is indeed erupting. Syria is already in flames. Now Egypt may be engulfed. How long can it be before Jordan is afflicted by the tumult?

Obama, aloof as ever, wants nothing to do with foreign policy. But a renewed debate is going to erupt in America over continuing aid to what amounts to an armed junta in Egypt. Senator Rand Paul was widely ridiculed when he proposed an amendment ending aid to Egypt, but perhaps he no longer looks so ridiculous at a moment when the Washington Post is calling for suspending it until the generals move to restore democracy. At a minimum, Obama should threaten suspension. Surely he does not want to go down in history as the enabler of tyranny?

There may not be much that America can do to calm Egypt, but Obama doesn't even seem to be trying. Leon Trotsky once remarked, "You may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you." Obama could be about to learn that he may not be interested in foreign affairs, but foreign affairs is interested in him.