If it has seemed at times that President Obama has been winging it on foreign policy, his handling of the ongoing Egyptian crisis pretty thoroughly ices the question. He has been winging it, and on no matter is this more evident than on Egypt.
With Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi now evicted from office by the country’s military and the constitution suspended, one might ask where Obama has stood on the momentous questions facing the Egyptian polity in recent days. The answer is that he has stood at various locations at various times—and hence nowhere at any time. This fits the president’s pattern since the Egyptian Revolution erupted back in early 2011.
Back then, as throngs of Egyptian protesters jammed Cairo’s Tahrir Square bent on ending the thirty-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak, Obama cast his lot with the protesters—and against the man who had been a steadfast U.S. ally throughout his long tenure. But Obama responded to events during late January and early February in a rather haphazard fashion.
First he called Mubarak to say America expected him to offer democratic reforms to his people as a way of assuaging the civic angers in the square. As he put it during a White House session with reporters following his call to Mubarak: “This moment of volatility has to be turned into a moment of promise.” When reporters asked the White House press spokesman if Mubarak’s time had passed, he responded, “Absolutely not.”
But within just three days, Obama changed his tune entirely. Now he wanted Mubarak out, and he didn’t merely express his hopes on that score publicly but also called the man to admonish him to vacate his office. After the call, he went before the cameras again to say Mubarak must leave and that the process of his departure “must begin now.”
What drove this assault on the U.S. ally at his greatest moment of travail? The answer seems to be: the widespread Western view that democracy must triumph wherever people are aggrieved and spirits are wounded. This view has been driving U.S. foreign policy to a considerable extent since the end of the Cold War.
Eventually, Mubarak abandoned his presidency as the country’s powerful military sought to blaze a path to some kind of democratic system that would leave intact its own highly preferential societal position. The process was messy, as such efforts usually are, and progress was halting. But eventually a presidential election took place, and Morsi, a figure of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, was elected president.
He hasn’t been much of a president—heavy-handed, not particularly inclusive or transparent, seemingly incapable of improving the lot of his people, particularly economically. So the protesters returned to Tahrir Square demanding an end to his rule.
And where has President Obama been on this one? Well, if you were reading the words of his ambassador to Cairo, Anne Patterson, you would think one thing. Early on, as protest stirrings began in Egypt, she warned that another Egyptian coup sparked by street demonstrations would undermine the country’s democratic project. “Some say that street action will produce better results than elections,” she said. “To be honest, my government and I are deeply skeptical.”
But almost immediately Obama seemed to reject that position as he cast his lot once again with the protesters—unmoved, it appeared, by the fact that Morsi was the duly elected ruler of Egypt. “What is clear right now,” said Obama, “is that although Mr. Morsi was elected democratically, there’s more work to be done to create the conditions in which everybody feels that their voices are heard.”
By way of clarification, the White House later issued a statement saying that “democracy is about more than elections.” It is also, said the statement, “about ensuring that the voices of all Egyptians are heard and represented by their government, including the many Egyptians demonstrating throughout the country.”
Let’s parse these expressions as an exercise in political science. True enough, democracy is about more than elections. There’s the rule of law, protection of citizens from arbitrary governmental action, equal treatment of all countrymen, etc. But, while democracy can exist without these things, it can’t exist without elections. Nor can it exist without a fundamental national respect for electoral outcomes.
We can draw a lesson from American history of the 1960s and 1970s, when hundreds of thousands of Vietnam War protesters jammed the streets and parks of Washington to convey their civic frustration and anger. They brought down a president and changed the direction of the war, but they never managed to get a war policy they liked or to end the conflict on a timetable they deemed appropriate. They certainly didn’t upend the electoral cycle. And in fact history tells us that they never represented a national majority. After all, they never managed to get a candidate they liked nominated by a major party for the 1968 election, and a man they revered was soundly rejected by the American people in 1972.
One must ask: Did America pass the Obama test during those turbulent times? Did the protesters feel that their government was listening to them? Were their voices represented in Congress and the White House as the government struggled with the issues that generated so much frustration and anger? Did anyone ever even hint with a straight face that non-electoral democratic principles should take precedence over the electoral schedule?
True, Morsi is a lousy president. So was Herbert Hoover in the American polity. So was James Buchanan. So was Jimmy Carter. In a democratic society, the only way to deal with such unfortunate democratic outcomes is to wait for the next election and vote the guy out.
So what is Obama’s real view on Egyptian democracy? Difficult to tell. On the evening of Morsi’s departure, he issued a statement that offers little real clarification. After having credited the street demonstrations as a legitimate expression of democracy that needed to be taken into account by the government, the president now said the United States was “deeply concerned” by the Egyptian military’s decision to remove Morsi and suspend the constitution in response to the street demonstrations. So was it back to the Anne Patterson position?
In the statement, Obama also called on the Egyptian military to “move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible through an inclusive and transparent process, and to avoid any arbitrary arrests of President [Morsi] and his supporters.” Nice sentiment. Whether there is much prospect that things will progress as smoothly as that, in the wake of this antidemocratic coup, remains a very open question. Already, within two days of the coup, the new leaders have commenced a crackdown against Morsi's Islamist followers.
What’s clear, though, is that Obama has brought to the matter of Egypt’s internal struggle a lack of intellectual rigor, and this has undermined any consistency in his thinking. If Mubarak had to go because he had been entrenched for too long and was standing in the way of an Egyptian path toward democracy, then Morsi should probably have stayed because he had not been in office through his duly designated electoral term and his forced departure likely will wreck Egypt’s prospects for keeping on a democratic path.
But that’s for the Egyptians to decide. What’s the lesson for America? It is that we should stay out of the internal politics of other nations because our involvement inevitably tosses us into inconsistent and even hypocritical postures and makes us look like a sanctimonious nation. Further, such meddling always has unintended consequences. Why did Obama have to get involved in Mubarak’s fate in the first place? What standing did he have to lecture the head of a foreign state—and an ally, at that—on when his time had passed? And what standing did he have to suggest, as he subtly did, what Morsi needed to do to legitimize his rule?
With Mubarak, as with Morsi, an appropriate approach might have been to say something like this: “The president of the United States, representing the American people, wishes the government of Egypt and the Egyptian people well as they struggle with the internal issues before them. We have abiding respect for the Egyptian people and the Egyptian nation, and we fully expect to remain friends with Egypt into the future, as we have in the past, irrespective of the outcome of the country’s current efforts to define its future. So long as Egypt conducts itself in ways that are consistent with U.S. interests, we will continue to support it with due regard for the fact that it is a great nation in an important region of the world.”
Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.