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Talking Nonsense on Egypt: A Mossadegh Moment in U.S. Foreign Policy

Barack Obama’s administration is on "the side of the Egyptian people," according to the State Department. "We’re not taking sides." The administration is kidding itself if it believes this pose will be seen as neutral while Egypt burns. First of all, taking the side of "the Egyptian people" means supporting a military coup that overthrew ...

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Barack Obama's administration is on "the side of the Egyptian people," according to the State Department. "We're not taking sides." The administration is kidding itself if it believes this pose will be seen as neutral while Egypt burns. First of all, taking the side of "the Egyptian people" means supporting a military coup that overthrew an elected president. Otherwise you'd take the side of democratic institutions.

The U.S. president clearly has not, as his statement declined to describe the military overthrow as a coup, and he is looking for ways not to comply with the law requiring suspension of assistance to governments that come to power by military force. The Obama administration seems to believe that a speedy return to civilian governance that the military condones will make Egypt once more democratic. The justifying principle being put forward by the administration is that the coup is popular. White House spokesman Jay Carney, explaining why the administration is disinclined to cut aid to the Egyptian military, said, "It is a highly charged issue for millions of Egyptians who have differing views about what happened."

Nearly 16 million Egyptian people participated in demonstrations, and most cheered when the military reasserted its role as superior to civilian power in Egypt. But a roughly equivalent number of Egyptians continued -- and continue -- to support Islamist parties. The Obama administration is aligning its rhetoric with demagogues the world over, who always claim to act in support of the will of the people and who are governments of men, not laws.

Barack Obama’s administration is on "the side of the Egyptian people," according to the State Department. "We’re not taking sides." The administration is kidding itself if it believes this pose will be seen as neutral while Egypt burns. First of all, taking the side of "the Egyptian people" means supporting a military coup that overthrew an elected president. Otherwise you’d take the side of democratic institutions.

The U.S. president clearly has not, as his statement declined to describe the military overthrow as a coup, and he is looking for ways not to comply with the law requiring suspension of assistance to governments that come to power by military force. The Obama administration seems to believe that a speedy return to civilian governance that the military condones will make Egypt once more democratic. The justifying principle being put forward by the administration is that the coup is popular. White House spokesman Jay Carney, explaining why the administration is disinclined to cut aid to the Egyptian military, said, "It is a highly charged issue for millions of Egyptians who have differing views about what happened."

Nearly 16 million Egyptian people participated in demonstrations, and most cheered when the military reasserted its role as superior to civilian power in Egypt. But a roughly equivalent number of Egyptians continued — and continue — to support Islamist parties. The Obama administration is aligning its rhetoric with demagogues the world over, who always claim to act in support of the will of the people and who are governments of men, not laws.

Now the administration is evidently focused on convincing the Muslim Brotherhood to "return to the political process," by which it means "forget the coup that just happened, ignore the fact that your leadership is once again under arrest, and accept the new rules of the game the military has imposed." The administration is once again a few beats behind the music — the al-Nour Party, the only Islamists who supported the coup, withdrew its support of the interim government Monday. And then there is the fact of 40 dead and 500 wounded among the Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

There is zero probability the Brotherhood will fall into line supporting "democracy" when that equates to "the military intervening to overthrow elected Islamists." The likelier outcome is a descent into protracted violence. Expect the cars of government officials to be blown up, the Brotherhood to be driven underground, and the gaining of ground of the al Qaeda narrative that "Western ways" of elections and civil society can’t produce the change societies in the Middle East desperately need. Jihad is a likelier result in Egypt than Islamists validating a machination that deprived them of elected office.

And what will happen if the administration’s policy succeeds, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Nour Party do participate in elections, and they are returned to power? Egypt’s liberals have so far proved unable to cooperate and organize. (U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson was not wrong in suggesting they direct their energy toward elections rather than protests.) Will the military allow them to return to the presidency or a leading role in the parliament? Egypt’s military is now the rule-setter.

Another discordant note is the insistence — including by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff — that the United States has enormous influence over the Egyptian military. Making that claim just after the Egyptian military has overthrown an elected government will surely convey U.S. support for the usurpation of civilian power. Worse yet, it’s clearly untrue. Reports that the national security advisor, secretary of state, secretary of defense, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had tried unsuccessfully to restrain Egypt’s military led to the opposite conclusion: that the United States has very little influence over a military determined to once again entrench itself above elected civilians.

Administration supporters are suggesting the United States ought not suspend the $1.2 billion in military assistance it provides Egypt because doing so would reduce U.S. influence. With such little influence as has been demonstrated in the past week, what would the United States be losing? Would an Egypt consumed with domestic discord actually move against Israel in violation of the Camp David Accords? It’s a pretty far-fetched argument.

The Obama administration has twice in the last two years waived congressional concerns about aid to Egypt and is reportedly averse to cutting off aid now, even though the law’s restrictions have been breached. This year’s aid has already been dispersed, which means the administration has eight months during which to take a principled stand before any actual decisions have to be made, but instead of building U.S. influence by showing the Egyptian military there are negative consequences, the administration is looking for ways to skirt the law’s provisions.

According to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, the Obama administration believes the will of the people needs to be taken into account here too. "We’re also looking at what happened here on the ground," Psaki said. "There are millions of people [in Egypt] who do not think it was a coup." So the provisions of the law will be weighed against the near-term popularity of the act with protesters. 

If reports are true that then-President Mohamed Morsy had agreed during the 48-hour ultimatum imposed by the military to accept a compromise prime minister and early parliamentary elections, and that the military proceeded to overthrow him anyway, the United States will be even more complicit. This is a Mossadegh moment in American foreign policy.

Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake

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