When he took office, Barack Obama promised a foreign policy that would break sharply in tone and substance from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
The crisis in Egypt, which has left hundreds of people dead and thousands injured in recent days, has exposed how difficult it has been for President Barack Obama to keep that pledge.
From ignoring the U.S. law that would have cut off military aid to Egypt to tacitly backing the overthrow of its elected government, Obama has veered from the approach he outlined early in his presidency, which emphasized a return to the rule of law in national security policy and firm support for, if not the promotion of, democratic values in the Middle East.
His statement Thursday during a vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. – his first since this week’s violence in Egypt began – highlighted his challenge in remaining consistent with those promises while preserving influence with the military-led government now running the most-populous Arab nation. It is the latest example of the tension between Obama’s pragmatism and idealism that has shaped much of his foreign policy in office.
Explaining his acceptance of the overthrow last month of Egypt’s elected Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, Obama said “his government was not inclusive and did not respect the views of all Egyptians.” That is a standard for U.S. support that Obama has never articulated before.
He also acknowledged tacitly that the faith he placed last month in Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who heads Egypt’s interim government, is being tested by the violent crackdown underway against Morsi supporters demonstrating in Cairo’s streets.
Obama condemned the government assault on a series of opposition camps, calling it a “dangerous path.” But the only action he announced Thursday was the cancellation of a joint training exercise planned for next month with Egypt’s military — a measured, mostly symbolic show of displeasure that even U.S. officials acknowledged would have little effect.
“We don’t take sides with any particular party or political figure,” Obama said, adding that it is “tempting” to blame the United States for Egypt’s turmoil. “That kind of approach will do nothing to help Egyptians achieve the future they deserve.”
A little more than four years ago Obama, speaking from Cairo University, called for a “new beginning” with the Islamic world, especially with the strategic Arab Middle East.
He urged Middle Eastern autocrats, many backed by the U.S. government for decades, to embrace democratic reform as the best way to ensure long-term prosperity and stability.
A month before that address, Obama outlined at the National Archives his case for reforming the interrogation, detention and other national security policies implemented by the Bush administration after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Obama argued that the failure to adhere to the “rule of law” in operating the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in employing interrogation methods he has called torture, “alienate us in the world.” American values and American security policy, he said, should not be in conflict.
Obama has by his own admission, however, fallen short of adopting the policies and principles he outlined, most notably in his inability so far to close Guantanamo Bay.
Questions surrounding the legality of American drone operations, the reach of the National Security Agency’s vast efforts to collect communications records, and the rise in the prosecution of leakers and journalists have recently forced Obama to respond and defend his record in adhering to the promise of his national security policy.
The apparent inconsistency between his pledge to respect the rule of law and his practice in applying it has been evident in his response to the political change in Egypt.
Obama declined to designate the Egyptian military’s overthrow of Morsi as a “coup,” evoking the same semantic avoidance employed by the Bush administration after then-President Hugo Chavez was briefly deposed in 2002. Where Chavez was a populist irritant to Bush, Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, presented his own challenges to Obama, who last year declined to call him an ally. He has never called for Morsi’s return to office.
Speaking Thursday, Obama said that given “our belief that engagement can support a transition back to a democratically elected civilian government, we’ve sustained our commitment to Egypt and its people.”
“But,” he added, “our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back.”
Obama announced he is canceling “Bright Star,” a joint military exercise that the United States has not held with Egypt since before longtime president Hosni Mubarak’s resignation in 2011. Obama left the $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt in place.
“I don’t think anyone in the government thinks that certainly the cancellation of Bright Star is going to change actions on the ground,” State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki told reporters Thursday.
“However, just given the events of the last 36 hours, this did impact our decision making about aid, and we’ll continue to review.”
Obama’s refusal to apply the coup law, which would automatically suspend military aid, has angered allies on Capitol Hill.
On Thursday, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees State Department operations, called on Obama to cut the aid in compliance with the law.
“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,” Leahy said in a statement.
At a time when rich Persian Gulf states with a fear of the region’s rising Islamic politics are sending billions of dollars to support Egypt’s military government, the U.S. military aid is relatively small.
That said, Egypt’s government receives a measure of international credibility through the financial connection, and U.S. officials still believe, despite the recent violence, that it provides a measure of leverage with Sissi and the others in charge.
After Obama delivered his comments, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke by phone with Sissi, nominally Egypt’s defense minister. In a statement, Hagel said he told Sissi that the Pentagon will “continue to maintain a military relationship with Egypt.”
“But I made it clear that the violence and inadequate steps towards reconciliation are putting important elements of our long-standing defense cooperation at risk,” Hagel said.
Obama, too, said Egyptian aid is under review. Reflecting the conclusion that he and his senior advisers have made regarding Egypt and the American ability to shape events there, Obama called for patience that will have to extend beyond his term.
“Democratic transitions are measured not in months or even years,” Obama said, “but sometimes in generations.”