Egypt burns, Obama critics smolder

Obama walking fine line: condemn violence in Egypt or work to change military leaders?

A woman turns her back to show off Obama poster in Tahrir Square on July 3, 2013.
Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- President Obama might have expected to spend a quiet August, playing rounds of golf in Martha’s Vineyard and continuing his jaunt around the country to build support for his economic agenda. Instead, as the turmoil in Egypt deepened this week amid a brutal military crackdown against anti-military protesters that has left more than 600 dead and 3,000 injured, the Obama administration appeared to flail about for an adequate response to the crisis.

As images of bloodied bodies in make-shift morgues and flames rising from government buildings flashed across television screens Thursday, Obama stood at a podium in Cape Cod and offered condolences to the families of the slain -- but little else. In a largely symbolic maneuver, the president canceled the biennial joint military exercises with Egypt known as Operation Bright Star, scheduled for next month.  

 "We appreciate the complexity of the situation," Obama said. "The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt's interim government and security forces. We deplore violence against civilians. We support universal rights essential to human dignity, including the right to peaceful protest."

What he did not do: make any mention of the approximately $1.5 billion in aid that the United States funnels each year to Egypt, $1.3 billion of it to the military which is underwriting the brutal crackdown. The president refused also to utter the word "coup" to characterize the military overthrow of the democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, in early July. Calling it a coup would trigger U.S. law requiring a suspension of military aid.

On Friday, the body count continued to rise as Morsi supporters clashed with security forces on the streets.

Obama called "spineless''

Shaid Hamid, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, echoed many critics when he called the administration's reaction "spineless."

"There was nothing new in terms of actual policy, and at the end of the day, you have to go beyond the words," Hamid said. "What is Obama going to do in response to these tragic killings? The answer was pretty much nothing."

Some called the president's refusal to cut foreign aid to Egypt illegal. They cited the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which outlaws assistance to any country whose "duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup."

"While President Obama condemns the violence in Egypt, his administration continues to send billions of taxpayer dollars to help pay for it," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said in a statement. "With more than 500 dead and thousands more injured this week alone, chaos only continues to grow in Egypt. So, Mr. President, stop skirting the issue, follow the law and cancel all foreign aid to Egypt."

Sen. Patrick Leahy, a liberal Democrat from Vermont, similarly said the military aid should end immediately.

"While suspending joint military exercises as the President has done is an important step, our law is clear: Aid to the Egyptian military should cease unless they restore democracy," he said in a statement.

Other Middle East analysts say the Obama administration has to walk a practically impossible line between standing up for democratic ideals and trying to maintain some semblance of a working relationship with the Egyptian government.

The United States looks to Egypt as an ally in the region and considers it critical to Israel's security by closing smuggling tunnels to the Gaza Strip and monitoring the border with Israel. The 1979 U.S.-brokered peace treaty between Israel and Egypt is contingent on continuing aid to both countries, a factor that makes cutting off money to either one particularly tricky.

All options are fraught with peril, said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. Obama's reaction in many ways reflects Americans' weariness with foreign entanglements after the costly wars of the last decade.

"The problem is that whether they suspend assistance or not, they’re not going to be able to alter calculations of the Egyptian military," Miller said. "As a consequence of that fact, Obama is looking for a way to express opposition without losing all of our capacity to work and shape the attitudes of the generals."

"The U.S. is in a place where it simply cannot win," Miller added.

Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, also said the United States was close to impotent in influencing outcomes in Egypt.

"The basic preferences of the Obama administration [are] that it would [involve a] minimum of violence and a negotiated political settlement that restores democracy," he said. "But the Obama administration doesn’t have the tools or the leverage with any of the actors."

Obama 2011 vs. Obama 2013

That may be why the White House has struggled to come up with a consistent message or foreign policy strategy on Egypt since Morsi was deposed on July 3.

Secretary of State John Kerry later told a Pakistani news outlet that the military overthrow amounted to "restoring democracy" because it reflected the will of the people. On Wednesday, Kerry joined the growing chorus of public officials who have denounced the imposition of martial law and the accompanying loss of life in Egypt — now on par with casualties in China's suppression of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy uprising.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, meanwhile, said in a statement that the United States will continue to maintain its military relationship with Egypt for the time being but that the violence had put the two countries' "longstanding defense cooperation at risk."

The squishiness of the Obama administration’s public statements has diminished the country's credibility on the world stage, Hamid said, not only with regard to Egypt but also in the president’s caution in taking a harder line on Syria, where casualties surpassed 100,000 in July.

"On democracy and human rights, Obama is particularly reticent to play a role," he said. "On hard national security, he is somewhat a traditionalist."

The bloody events of this week mark a dramatic turnaround for a country that Obama visited at the outset of his presidency in 2009 in a concerted attempt to repair relationships with the Muslim world and whose popular uprising he encouraged in lofty terms in 2011.

"There are times in the course of history when the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has been building up for years," Obama said then. "In America, think of the defiance of those patriots in Boston who refused to pay taxes to a king or the dignity of Rosa Parks as she sat courageously in her seat."

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