As the death toll in Egypt continues to rise, and Islamists who cannot overcome the violence of the military seek easier targets (like Coptic churches), the main official U.S. reaction up until this morning was the president’s statement that “the world is watching.” Obama’s new statement from Martha’s Vineyard, just concluded, amidst growing calls for a suspension of U.S. military assistance, was more than a bit underwhelming.
Yes, the president “condemned” and “deplored” the Egyptian military’s actions, and “opposed” imposition of martial law. But his only real initiative–the cancelation of upcoming joint military exercises accompanied by a vague “review” of the U.S. relationship with Egypt–will be viewed as at most a slap on the wrist.
Obama’s blunt comment that the United States cannot be held responsible for what happens in Egypt is true enough. If we were to scrap military aid, it’s clear Gulf states eager to crush both the Muslim Brotherhood and democracy would more than replace our dollars. But the situation in Egypt has now evolved beyond the point where a technical reading of the word “coup” in U.S. foreign assistance laws is the issue. The world is indeed watching, not just the events in Cairo, but how the United States chooses to exert its moral and diplomatic as well as our material leverage in this situation. At a time when we are brokering peace talks in Jerusalem and supplying military weaponry to rebels in Syria, it’s no time to pretend we can be bystanders in Egypt.
The hard truth is that the United States has no real influence to lose right now anyway, and immediate impact isn’t the point. Taking a (much belated) stand is the only way for the United States to regain any credibility — with Cairo, with the region, and with its own tattered democratic rhetoric.
While moving, however slowly, in the direction of a “stand,” the president may have a stronger position fully in mind, which we will see in the next few days unless the situation n Egypt improves. In a situation where he will be blamed by opponents here and abroad for whatever happens, it’s understandable he wants to proceed carefully and deliberately. But at some point, the very impossibility of an easy solution needs to convince him that a clear stand backed up by whatever leverage we actually have is in the long-range interests of the United States, lest we be perceived as watching while democracy truly dies in Egypt along with the victims of violence.
UPDATE: A disturbing comment from Charles Pierce that’s worth thinking about:
I look at the Middle East and I see Central America in the 1980’s — an endless series of half-baked and bloody civil wars with the United States clumsily deciding which group of thugs to support — but with more severe potential consequences and the added accelerant of religious mania. Our instincts back then were always lousy, and our choices back then were almost always bad. I don’t see either the instincts or the choices as having improved very much here.