Here we go again. It has been barely a week since the Egyptian military removed Mohammed Morsi from power, and Washington is already knee-deep in the blame game over who’s responsible for the current mess and what America must do to fix it.
The question of “Who lost (insert country here)?” goes back at least to the communist takeover of China in 1949, when American conservatives accused Harry Truman’s administration of abandoning Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist forces. But the “Who lost” formulation has resurfaced with increasing frequency in the last few years – over Iraq, over Syria, and now over Egypt, as the United States struggles to adapt to the rapidly shifting political situation there.
Most fingers are pointing at Barack Obama’s administration. The U.S. president was either too soft on the Muslim Brotherhood and/or not tough enough on the generals. Indeed, right now we have an amen chorus urging a cutoff of assistance to Egypt until the generals turn into democrats or get out of the way and allow others to. No surprise here. Just another example of Obama’s abdication of American leadership and leading from behind, right? Or, if Obama is not a juicy-enough target, you can also fault the U.S. ambassador’s ill-timed remarks about the value of elections over street demonstrations, or Secretary of State John Kerry’s July 4 aquatic adventures in Nantucket.
Some of this is just U.S. domestic politics. But much has to do with the belief that more American leadership is always better than less and the U.S. need to seek clear solutions in situations where, more often than not, only confused outcomes are available.
The primary reason for Egypt’s current travails has much more to do with the choices Egyptians have made and the circumstances those choices have created than the policies of the Obama administration, let alone any sins of omission and commission.
Ground Control to Major Tom: Egypt isn’t a democracy, and it’s not going to be anytime soon. The two most powerful forces in the country — the military and the Muslim Brotherhood — are the least democratic, and the liberal, secular, less radical Islamists are so far incapable of organizing politically, let alone running the country.
There’s little the United States could have done over the past 18 months that would have altered the basic narrative that has played out. Simply put, what’s happening in Egypt isn’t Obama’s fault. Nor can he fix it. And based on that judgment, the United States doesn’t need a fundamental reassessment and dramatic change in its Egypt policy.
Take the Egyptian military. Perhaps Obama believed too much in its capacity to orchestrate an effective transition to civilian rule. But the United States was already deeply locked into an investment trap with the generals from which it was almost impossible to escape.
For decades, America funneled military and economic aid to an authoritarian Egypt in an effort to protect the peace treaty with Israel, keep Hosni Mubarak aligned with U.S. policy, fight terrorism, and protect the Suez Canal. And the Mubarak regime didn’t even pretend to function according to democratic rules. So how would the United States now rationalize cutting off aid to Egypt as it struggles to cope with a democratic transition? And can America afford to lose the leverage it has with Egypt’s military, right now the only relatively reliable actor on the Egyptian stage?