Obama's Egypt Address: A License to Kill

August 15, 2013 Topic: The Presidency Region: Egypt Blog Brand: Jacob Heilbrunn

Obama's Egypt Address: A License to Kill

If he was ever apprehensive, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi can relax.

President Obama's pallid audio address this morning from Martha's Vineyard made it sound as though he regarded the events in Egypt as a rude imposition on his vacation. Instead of enunciating a firm and clear policy, he moved from banality to platitude before veering off-course with a disquisition about the struggles America had before it came a full democracy.

The only listeners who derived satisfaction from Obama's talk must be the Egyptian generals whom Obama mostly referred to in elliptical terms. Ending a biannual military exercise is supposed to cow the junta in Cairo into refraining from massacring Egyptians? No word about a coup in Cairo? Obama said continued "engagement" with Egypt will help create a democracy, but he himself barely appears engaged with the upheaval taking place. The most he could do was announce that his "national security staff" will...study the problem some more.

If he was ever apprehensive, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi can relax. Obama spoke but he did not speak a language that the generals will interpret as anything but a license to kill. So much for Obama's lofty expressions about a new beginning in his address to the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009.

Obama was vague about the history of what has taken place in Egypt over the past year. He referred to the "complexity of the situation." But it isn't really all that complex. A power struggle betwen two sides, neither of which is particularly appealing, has been taking place. The longer it continues, the more radicalized the Muslim Brotherhood will become. This is neither in Egypt's nor America's interest.

Obama began by referring to the several decades of ties between American and Egypt, but this was not based on true friendship. Instead, it amounted to Washington bankrolling an authoritarian regime that was easily toppled during the Arab spring. It is unlikely that many Egyptians regard those decades of eleemosynary aid to the Mubarak regime with particular pleasure. Obama further tried to console Egyptians by making it clear that the "United States strongly condemns" what is taking place. Big deal. It is Obama's passivity that deserves condemnation. A forceful move would have been to suspend aid to Egypt's military. So far, Washington appears to have derived zero leverage from continuing aid. Until Obama acts, Egypt's military will interpret his inaction as acquiescence to its brutal measures.

What Obama's foreign policy appears to amount to is abdication, a passive surrender to events. Egypt is not Syria. America has long been directly, intimately engaged in its affairs. But Obama is acting as though he's an innocent bystander, wringing his hands over the terrible things he's witnessing but incapable of actually trying to influence events. No doubt Obama was right to state "America cannot determine the future of Egypt." But this is a straw man. Who said America could determine its future? What it could have attempted to do was nudge Egypt toward compromise. Now it may be too late. Obama may have acted like he was putting Egypt on notice, but the only thing the generals will end up noticing is his passivity.