As the slaughter of antigovernment protesters in Egypt continues, a string of first-term State Department officials are now distancing themselves from President Obama’s policies and refuting his reluctance to cut off military aid to Egypt’s generals.
With injuries in the thousands and the official death toll nearing 700, Egypt’s military leadership is showing no signs of abating, despite repeated demands by the White House to end the violent crackdown. Thus far, President Obama has cancelled next month’s joint U.S. military exercise with Egypt and postponed the delivery of F-16 fighter jets, but former officials say those moves don’t go nearly far enough.
"The situation in Egypt keeps getting worse, and Egyptian government actions keep running contrary to what the U.S. is calling for publicly and privately," said Amy Hawthorne, who left the State Department in December as Foggy Bottom’s Egypt country coordinator. Hawthorne said the administration has waited too long to suspend military aid to the government. "Continuing this kind of business-as-usual approach implicates the U.S., in a way, in whatever is going on in Egypt, and could put us in a position pretty soon where we might be contorting ourselves to accept whatever repressive new political reality the Egyptian leadership is trying to create," she said.
Hawthorne is by no means alone. Tamara Wittes, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs during Obama’s first term, says Obama’s refusal to call the military’s actions a coup has become indefensible. "I think it’s time for the United States to recognize that what we have here is the restoration of a military dictatorship in Cairo," said Wittes, now at the Brookings Institution. "That means that the United States needs to call these events what they are – under American law it needs to suspend assistance to the Egyptian government because this was a military coup and it is a military regime."
Piling on, former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley addressed the administration’s coup policy in a radio interview on Friday. "Obviously, I think it was a military coup. I think the United States should call it that," he told Democracy Now.
Inside the State Department, former officials tell The Cable the anxiety over the absence of a coherent policy is well known. "The worker bees are frustrated," said a former State Department official, referring to employees at the bureaus of Near Eastern Affairs, Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and Counterterrorism. "Everyone knows it’s a coup. They recognize the reasons why we wouldn’t call it a coup, but they also see the hypocrisy."
Another former department official recalled a contingency planning meeting in the Spring of 2012 in which officials discussed a number of hypothetical U.S. responses to troubling actions by Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. "Somebody raised the idea of cutting off military aid and it was roundly rejected," said the source. "The thinking was that we need to reserve such a step for something really huge, like a military coup. And everyone was like, ‘yeah, it would take a coup.’"
At a Tuesday briefing, reporters again questioned the State Department on its refusal to call the military overthrow a coup. "Does anyone in this building feel that perhaps it was a mistake not to call what happened in Egypt a coup?" asked a reporter.
"We don’t feel that – no," said spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "I’m not doing a retrospective, and our position is the same."
"Obviously, things are volatile," Psaki continued. "Obviously, that’s why the secretary, the president of the United States, people around the world are focused on taking every step we can possibly take to return to a stable path. That’s our focus. We evaluate every single day, we review every day, what steps that can be taken, whether that’s aid, whether that’s new constructive ideas, whether that’s calls, whether that’s visits."
In any case, as the death toll climbs higher in Egypt, criticisms from former administration officials and members of Congress will only intensify pressure on the White House to get tough with Egypt’s generals, even if that means sacrificing America’s main source of influence in the country.