Terms of Engagement

Speak Softly and Carry No Stick

Welcome to the Obama Doctrine in Egypt.


President Barack Obama, we know, believes in "engagement." He believes that maintaining ties even with the most hateful regimes holds out the possibility of progress. In his Nobel Peace Prize speech he mocked moralists — implicitly including his predecessor, George W. Bush — who preferred "the satisfying purity of indignation" to the hard and very impure work of diplomacy. And that, I imagine, is why Obama has reacted so cautiously to the shocking massacres in Egypt, canceling planned military exercises but leaving U.S. military aid intact.

I think this is a serious mistake. But the calculus that may have lead Obama to his decision is one that I would have admired in a different context. It’s a calculus that needs to be reckoned with. I’ll try to do that here.

Both Obama and many of the people whose advice he has listened to since 2009 are morally driven figures who nevertheless accept that the world is a fallen place which cannot easily be changed, even with all of America’s might.  Samantha Power, a senior White House official before she became U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, used to say, "We are all consequentialists now." We — that is, outside advocates and activists like her who had joined the administration — had an obligation to choose words, and policies, according to their consequences, not according to some abstract moral scale. If praising dictators in Sudan or Burma, as the administration did at times, encouraged them to reconcile with their rivals, then they should be praised. Cutting ties to demonstrate the purity of your indignation, by contrast, is irresponsible.

Obama’s consequentialism was a welcome relief from Bush’s moralism. Perhaps Obama should have more sharply criticized the grossly fraudulent Iranian election in 2009, but he held his tongue for fear of jeopardizing talks on nuclear enrichment. It’s true that the Iranian authorities simply pocketed Washington’s silence and remained intractable; but they would have pocketed American outrage with the same nonchalance. The United States has far more to gain from engaging Iran than it does from issuing ultimatums, even if Israel and most of the U.S. Congress don’t see it that way.

Doesn’t the same logic apply to today’s Egypt? After all, even the Bush administration was unprepared to lower the boom on President Hosni Mubarak when he rigged elections and sent thugs to beat and kill protestors in direct defiance of a promise to Washington. When I was writing The Freedom Agenda, my book about Bush’s embrace of democracy promotion, I asked White House and State Department officials why they hadn’t even threatened to cut military aid to Egypt. The answer was: Because it wouldn’t do any good, and because "we have other fish to fry" with Egypt, which served as a regional counterweight to Iran and a reliable supporter of U.S. policy towards Israel.

Today, of course, those same fish are still frying, especially as Secretary of State John Kerry tries to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. This may explain why Kerry has continued to absurdly insist that a path to a political solution in Egypt "is still open" — even as Islamists are being hunted down in the street. At the same time, it’s just as absurd to imagine that a suspension of the $1.5 billion a year in U.S. aid, or the threat of it, would have any effect on Egypt’s new military rulers. They have waded hip-deep in blood; they won’t retrace their steps because Washington is outraged.

In fact, any punitive action would be the purest of moral gestures. First of all, since the new regime’s Gulf backers will probably make up for any shortfall in Western assistance, the threat is almost meaningless. Second, no one’s listening. In the Mubarak era, threatening aid would have signaled to activists and protestors that Washington stood with them. But yesterday’s activists are today’s apologists for mass murder; just read the repellent statement of support for the assaults issued by the National Salvation Front, the aptly named civilian façade for Egypt’s new military rulers. There is no one in Egypt to whom to send a signal. A consequentialist would thus ask: Why bother?

The answer is that silence has consequences too. To register nothing more than disappointment in the face of a military coup, the arrest and imminent trial of overthrown leaders, and the killing of hundreds of civilians is to make a very blunt statement about the relative importance the United States gives to democracy and human rights, on the one hand, and national interests, narrowly construed, on the other. It is the message the elder George Bush, a master of consequentialism, gave when he restored regular working relations with China soon after the massacre at Tiananmen Square. The signal was meant for the Chinese leadership, but it was heard loud and clear by both dictators and ordinary citizens the world over. What they understood is that Washington was prepared to overlook any amount of bloodshed in order to resume relations with an important ally.

Statesmen, of course, must make painful choices that look ugly from the outside. The United States does not criticize Saudi Arabia’s appallingly repressive regime for the same reason it used to pull its punches on Mubarak’s Egypt: It wouldn’t help, and there are other fish to fry. But Saudi oppression is a steady state, and Egypt has just engaged in an orgy of brutality that has riveted the world’s attention. The United States cannot look away and pivot to Asia on this one. On the other side of the balance, if the U.S. were to withdraw its support, Egypt would still be very unlikely to change its pro-Western regional posture — which is a matter of national self-interest. Thus if there is little to be gained by the moral gesture, neither is there much to be lost by it. Even a cool-headed calculating consequentialist might then pull the plug.

If that’s so, why does Obama continue to behave as if he has the wisdom and maturity to deny himself a cheap thrill? Perhaps because the experience of the last four-plus years has so thoroughly imbued him with a sense of the intransigence of the world, and the limits of American power, that he now automatically defaults to the more modest option. Bush-the-elder was born a realist; Obama is a convert. He has explained his reluctance to intervene forcefully in Syria by asking why he should act there and not in the Congo, where even more people have been killed — a strangely rhetorical question from a man who has embraced the principle that states have a responsibility to protect citizens from mass atrocities. And this, too, is a signal — and not one the Barack Obama of 2008 would ever have expected to send.

I would like to say that suspending aid to Egypt is now in America’s national interest. Maybe it’s not; maybe it’s a wash. So I will say instead that it has become a matter of national self-respect. Democracies have to be able to look at themselves in the mirror, and to accept, if not like, what they see. That is why the message we send to Egypt is not an indulgence, but a necessity.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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